How a drug ban and open carcass crunching revived the vulture population in Tamil Nadu

ByRama Ramanan

Published Jan 29, 2024 | 9:00 AMUpdatedJan 29, 2024 | 9:00 AM

The first landscape synchronized population estimation was conducted on 25 and 26 February, 2023.

To the common public, vultures may seem repulsive and frightening. But for the environmental community across the world, this magnificent species brings food chain stability and balance to nature.

“Not many people understand the value of vultures,” says Supriya Sahu, Additional Chief Secretary to Government, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Forests, Tamil Nadu. At the moment, Sahu is celebrating the rise in vulture population in Tamil Nadu, based on the recent census data.

“The numbers have gone up to 320 this year from 246 in 2023, with maximum nesting found in Tamil Nadu,” she informs South First.

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Creating an action plan

In 2022, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) released a Government Order (GO) to create an Action Plan for Vulture Conservation (APVC). The GO indicated that there are nine species of vultures found in India.

Oriental White-backed Vulture, Long-billed Vulture, Red-headed Vulture and Egyptian Vulture are found in Tamil Nadu. (Pravin Shanmughanandam)

Oriental White-backed Vulture, Long-billed Vulture, Red-headed Vulture and Egyptian Vulture are found in Tamil Nadu. (Pravin Shanmughanandam)

These are Oriental White-backed Vulture, Long-billed Vulture, Slender-billed Vulture, Himalayan Vulture, Eurasian Griffon Vulture, Red-headed Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Bearded Vulture and Cinereous Vulture.

Of these, in Tamil Nadu, there are four species — Oriental White-backed Vulture, Long-billed Vulture, Red-headed Vulture, and Egyptian Vulture.

“One of the important action plans was to set up a state-level committee for vulture conservation. In 2022, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin constituted a committee under the Chief Wildlife Warden. This included experts from the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Salim Ali Centre, the Wildlife Institute of India, etc,” says Sahu.

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Cause for decline

Researchers at BNHS assert that tens of millions of vultures used to be present across the Indian subcontinent. The vast flocks present were due to the very large numbers of livestock reared across South Asia.

But by the mid-1990s, the species witnessed a massive decline. For several years, researchers battled to understand what might be the cause of their deaths.

The Diclofenac breakthrough was made in 2003 by researchers working for the Ornithological Society of Pakistan and The Peregrine Fund, led by Professor Lindsay Oaks from Washington State University. Lindsay recognised that the class of painkiller known as Non-Steroidal Anti- Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) had been linked to kidney failures and cases of visceral gout when some of these drugs were given to birds, according to a report published by BNHS.

“One of the suspected reasons for a mass decline in the population of vultures is the use of a drug called Diclofenac. It is a veterinary drug, which is given as pain relief to cattle. But often high doses are administered. Eventually, the cattle die. And this becomes toxic to the vultures that feed on that particular carcass,” explains Sahu.

Besides the carcass which carries the drug, there is a lack of food due to industrialisation, modernisation, and habitat loss. And this can be quite devastating for birds, she points out.

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Measures to curb the decline

While the drug has been banned in India, Tamil Nadu implemented this ban by collaborating with the Drug Controller of Tamil Nadu. “We ensured the banned drug is not made available. We also prosecuted 140 pharmacists and shopkeepers who had this drug in their stores,” recalls Sahu.

Forest officials patrol the tiger reserve using NTCA's MSTrIPES app. (Pravin Shanmughanandam)

Forest officials patrol the tiger reserve using NTCA’s MSTrIPES app. (Pravin Shanmughanandam)

Besides, the government took steps to create awareness about the side effects of the drug. “We trained pharmacists, veterinary doctors and the field staff who are in the vulture areas,” she adds.

Earlier, following the death of a wild animal and the subsequent postmortem, the carcass would be buried.

“We decided that the carcass be left in the open for vultures to feed on. For example, if there is a natural death of a wild elephant, then after the post mortem, the elephant carcass is left in the open as it can be food for several vultures for 10-15 days,” says D Venkatesh, Conservator of Forests and Field Director for Mudumalai Tiger Reserve.

Sahu believes this has been a simple and effective method in curbing the decline. Additionally, the team has also created several watering holes in the vulture safe zones.

On the Forest Department’s part, the officials use the MSTrIPES app developed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority. “Our staff patrols the entire tiger reserve using this app, which helps them identify nesting and roosting pockets in the reserve. If they find any carcass hidden in the bushes, they bring it out in the open for the vultures to feed on it,” shares Venkatesh.

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The gamechanger for rise in numbers

But the most significant step, according to Sahu, is the adoption of the synchronised survey. In 2023, the first survey was conducted in Tamil Nadu.

“This year, we included Kerala and Karnataka because it is a contiguous landscape. Many vultures fly off to the neighbouring states, so we decided to follow the landscape approach,” explains Sahu, delighted that the team is now arriving at numbers.

On 25 and 26 February, 2023, the first landscape synchronised population estimation was conducted. This estimated the total number of vultures as 246. This survey was carried out in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and the adjoining landscape consisting of Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, Wayanad in Kerala, and the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and Nagerhole Tiger Reserve in Karnataka. These have historically supported the vulture population.

The second synchronised survey was conducted in Tamil Nadu on 30 and 31 December, 2023. This time, Biligiri Ranganatha Swamy Temple Tiger Reserve, Karnataka, and the entire state of Tamil Nadu were included in the survey.

During this survey, the team adopted the vantage point count methodology at 139 places. The survey was conducted over four sessions on two days for eight hours.

Besides, during the monthly patrolling using the MSTrIPES app, Venkatesh’s team visits the areas around towering trees by the waterbodies inside the reserve.

“In the vantage point method, we count nests. This is a sure shot way of counting the correct number of vultures And that’s how we arrived at 320. Last year, the number was 264,” Sahu chips in, adding that every small increase is rare and a reason for them to cheer.

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Ensuring survival

With conservation efforts now in place, the next step is to ensure the sustained survival of the species.

“It is important to know that vultures are important for our ecosystem. If the vultures disappear, there will be several zoonotic diseases because they are basically scavengers of nature,” Sahu points out.

At the community level, schools need to create this awareness among students. They need to learn to protect and safeguard the nests of vultures, she suggests.

At the professional level, it is important to train pharmacists to not store the banned drug.

Pharmacists from Masinagudi area are assembled on a regular basis and reminded about the dangers of storing and selling Diclofenac. “We take them into the forest to the nesting and roosting pockets, and show them the vulture population. This is how we are trying to improve our conservation efforts at the grassroots level,” Venkatesh asserts.

“We have to closely work with the Animal Husbandry department, the local communities, farmers, cattle owners, over a period of time to create a safe environment for vultures,” adds Sahu.

There’s also an urgent need to look at alternative drugs which are not toxic to vultures.

“We are also collaborating with NGOs to create awareness among the tribal and non-tribal population around the tiger reserves and forest areas. Through street plays and other activities, we educate them about the importance of vultures and their nests,” says Venkatesh.

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Uniting South India for the species

The most important thing is to ensure there is no habitat loss, both Sahu and Venkatesh say in unison. They remind that deforestation and climate change is already impacting the forests in an adverse way.

This time, Biligiri Ranganatha Swamy Temple Tiger Reserve, Karnataka and the entire state of Tamil Nadu were included in the survey. (Pravin Shanmughanandam)

This time, Biligiri Ranganatha Swamy Temple Tiger Reserve, Karnataka and the entire state of Tamil Nadu were included in the survey. (Pravin Shanmughanandam)

“We need to plant trees, especially fruit trees so that the birds can come back. They need food so that they can do foraging. We need to rejuvenate our water bodies. Because birds flock to these water bodies especially during the migratory season,” urges Sahu.

Invasive species, she says, are another cause for creating havoc in the forest areas. “For example, the prosopis juliflora, and lantana etc. are not good for the ecosystem development. So we need to do a lot of eco restoration work, because the exotic species do not support the birds and the ecosystem,” she adds.

For now, the community is celebrating the outcome of an affirmative action plan while devising new ways to ensure the survival of vultures.