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Why saving the vulture matters

With vulture numbers still falling, conservationists hope the third annual vulture count by WWF-India will help drive strategies to save the species

Populations of the Egyptian vulture have also declined considerably in India.(Photograph by Shekhar Diman)

By Nitin Sreedhar

LAST PUBLISHED 31.08.2023  |  12:00 PM IST

The latest State of India’s Birds (SoIB) report, released towards the end of August, revealed yet more alarming trends for vulture species in the country. Vultures have catastrophically declined in India since the 1990s – from a population of millions to now just tens of thousands -- with the Indian vulture crisis labelled by many conservationists as one of the most rapid and wide scale species decline ever seen in birds.

A big reason for this decline is manmade: the veterinary anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac, which is fatal to vultures that feed on carcasses of livestock that have been administered the drug.

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But now citizen scientists and birding enthusiasts can help document the presence of vultures in various locations across India through WWF-India’s Annual Vulture Count, which begins later this week on 2 September, which also marks International Vulture Awareness Day.

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While nine vulture species occur in India, it is the White-rumped Vulture, Indian Vulture, and Red-headed Vulture that have suffered the greatest long-term declines (98%, 95%, and 91% respectively) since the early 2000s. The Egyptian Vulture and the migratory Griffon Vulture have also declined considerably, but not as catastrophically, according to data from the SoIB report. Most of these species are listed as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List, the most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi and plant species.

“WWF-India introduced the Vulture Count in 2021. Given the decline in vulture populations over the years, this initiative was aimed to assess their numbers in the wild. The Vulture Count involves training citizens to identify various vulture species and document the observations on the eBird platform in collaboration with Bird Count India (which supports listing and monitoring of birds in India). In the long-run, through the collected data, we will estimate vulture abundance across different locations," says Rinkita Gurav, manager, Raptor Conservation Programme, WWF-India. “The previous two years witnessed enthusiastic participation from over 450 volunteers. Anticipating even greater engagement this year, we look forward to drawing participants from all parts of the country." Gurav says on email.

White-rumped vultures can be often seen near human occupied spaces. (Photograph by Sunny Joshi)

The citizen science initiative, which will run till 2 October, is open to volunteers above the age of 18: nature enthusiasts, citizen birders, ornithologists, photographers, and field guides. WWF-India has partnered with BirdCount India and a representative from the latter organisation will conduct an online training session on “how to use eBird for recording presence/absence of birds" for the volunteers.

Vultures are widely misunderstood birds, when, in fact, they play a key role in the natural ecosystem. "Protecting vultures is vital due to their unique ecological role. They efficiently clean up carrion, which prevents the spread of diseases. Unfortunately, various threats impact their populations," says Gurav. “Major cause of decline in their numbers is due to poisoning from veterinary drugs – diclofenac, ketoprofen, aceclofenac and nimesulide. Other than this habitat loss, food availability and collision with overhead power transmission lines also impact their population," Gurav explains, adding that their decline could disrupt ecosystems.

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While the veterinary usage of diclofenac was banned in 2008 the SoIB report says the ban reduced but did not eliminate the usage of diclofenac. As a result, vulture populations have continued to decline since 2016. There is also now evidence that vultures are at risk from other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (or NSAIDs), including aceclofenac, ketoprofen, and nimesulide, that were introduced as alternatives to diclofenac. Newer threats have emerged for species like the cliff-nesting Indian Vulture, whose nesting habitats tend to be destroyed by quarrying and mining.

Several conservation efforts to sustain the vulture population are now in place in India. But, as the SoIB report says, if vulture declines are to be halted and reversed, there is an urgent need for measures that stop the veterinary use of toxic NSAIDs. A combination of bans, education, and alternatives may be needed for this, which makes initiatives like the vulture count and International Vulture Awareness Day all the more crucial.

Gurav says expectations for the third vulture count are high. “Once concluded, data analysis will inform vulture population estimates and distribution trends, driving focused conservation strategies. The findings will foster public awareness through reports and collaboration with government and conservation bodies, advocating for safeguarding the remnant populations of vultures in our country," she adds.

For more details on the project and how to participate, visit people4planet.wwfindia.org

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