Vultures - "We will survive"

-Pradeep Sharma, Veterinary Officer at Department of Animal Husbandry, Govt. of Rajasthan
(Pradeep is a Vet Microbiologist and can be contacted at pradeep@gmx.it)

We are probably aware of the declining number of the three endemic species of vultures in the Indian subcontinent i.e. Long-billed, White-rumped and Slender-billed vultures. These vultures used to be one of the most common raptor (Birds of Prey) species in the world prior to the nineties, and now very few young people have the privilege to see them in their natural habitat. The single most plausible reason has been exposure of these vultures to the residual veterinary painkiller known as diclofenac as they consumed carcasses of cattle and other livestock species treated with this drug before their death. This decline has been unprecedented in human history given the scale, speed, number and manner in which a wild species decimated from the planet. This is the first documented instance of mass-poisoning of a wild species by a veterinary drug.

White- rumped vulture

Dedicated avian conservation organizations have been working in different manners with the help of subject experts, scientists and volunteers in coordination with concerned bodies of the Government of India since start of this millennium. The milestone of the conservation efforts came when diclofenac was banned in veterinary practices in any form back in 2006 in India-- a success story of how good science can help in conservation of the species practically and realistically. 

In the ongoing first step, captive breeding of few selected vultures is successfully being practiced. This was important to safeguard a breeding population in case of total extinction of the vultures from their natural habitat and to breed them to increase their numbers. Additionally selected areas in India and Nepal were declared as ‘Vulture Safe Zones’ (VSZ)—these are large areas in which consistent and intensive efforts have been made to make sure that livestock species are not treated with diclofenac by veterinary practitioners, para-vets or the farmers themselves. This is made possible by awareness building, constant monitoring of pharmacies and with the help of local bodies. The captive-bred vultures are now ready to be released in the second phase of the conservation work. This second phase is very crucial and the success of the first phase of captive breeding mostly depends on its successful execution. 

Long- billed vultures

An important question arises if creation of a VSZ is easy as it sounds? Probably no! The most challenging work for people working for conservation of the vultures has been to stop illegal use of diclofenac in veterinary practices. This is due to lackadaisical enforcement of the law, communication gap between conservation scientists and veterinarians, and most importantly—the quacks! These poorly educated or illiterate quacks, common in rural India are not licensed to practice veterinary medicine legally. These quacks, in fact, in many cases, can’t read name of the label and their selection of drug is mostly based on how it looks like including its color!  Obviously it seems that these quacks are not aware of the harm they are causing, partly true, but in most cases they use diclofenac because of its cheap availability, efficacy and lack of any painful sensation associated with the only safe veterinary drug so far—Meloxicam. It is highly unlikely that these quacks can ideally respond ever by stopping using diclofenac. The motivation for this illegal use also stem from the fact that there has been no single trial against the culprits so far in India! Now this vital link of enforcing law in conservation contexts by legal action either doesn’t exist or doesn’t have many takers presently. A conservation scientist or a volunteer is not always expected to take this long arduous route for obvious reasons but the competent people in the society can take this forward by legal routes. Also the conservation of a species that is going to extinct is crucial and of utmost importance. The legal action should not be punishing but correcting and must act as a strong deterrence against those who break the law. 
Another important aspect that the conservation planners must incorporate is movement of domestic animals across the regions. Animals are being bought and transported by farmers individually or at a mass scale. We are aware of large gathering of farmers gathering at animal fairs and subsequent transaction of their animals. Buffalo male calves are bought in bulk and transported to slaughter houses. Sheep migration by pastoral communities is an apt example of a systemic migration of domestic animals at a large scale. Availability of motor vehicles and deeper penetration of the same in rural India makes it quite easier to transport animals to a long distance and in short time. 

If we connect the dots, then it is clear that an animal treated with diclofenac away from VSZ could potentially make it to the VSZ in a short time. If the animal dies soon after arrival then the vultures could be exposed to the residual diclofenac contained therein the carcass. It is practically not possible to stop such movements and check every individual animal this way. 

Furthermore few more veterinary painkillers are also toxic to the vultures including ketoprofen and aceclofenac. In fact, aceclofenac is a structural and pharmacological derivative of diclofenac itself. Though researchers have proved the potential toxicity of these drugs but still it is not illegal to use these drugs in veterinary practices. It also means that these drugs can still be used in a VSZ, which is alarming. 

Another factor adding to complexity of VSZ is enormous foraging range of the vultures, which could fly in excess of a hundred kilometers at a stretch. Even a very big VSZ could not ensure movement of the vultures exclusively with in designated boundaries of the VSZ. 

So we have a potentially worrying situation of illegal use of diclofenac in veterinary practices, specially made rampant by quacks, and a quick large-distance movement of animals that is damaging to very fundamental objective of creating a VSZ, which is to check exposure of diclofenac to the vultures. Any prospective or existing conservation strategy must incorporate critical evaluation of these situations before releasing the captive-bred vultures to these zones. An effective enforcement of the diclofenac ban is probably the most cheap, practical and long-term strategy for in-situ conservation of the critically endangered vultures, which unfortunately, is being paid the least attention. 

Pradeep Sharma moderated an online chat in our Club on 
18th August, 2010
The chat transcription can be read at the link  http://www.indianwildlifeclub.com/chat/chat-archive.aspx?cid=67

Environment Education

Update on Tiger-Cyclo -walk through February 2014

Trail update February, 2014- End of the trail
-Sunil Joshi

Day 50 -- 1st February 2014.
Nashik, Presentation in a school.

Day 51 -- 2nd February 2014.
Nashik to Nandurmadhameshwar bird sanctuary & back in a vehicle.
We were fortunate enough to visit Nandurmadhameshwar bird sanctuary on world wet land day.  
Mr. Vinod Patil a bird watcher, helped team "Tiger cyclo-walk". He contacted many organisations right from Akola to Nashik & arranged accommodation & food at different places. Team "Tiger cyclo-walk" salutes Mr. Vinod Patil for his efforts towards the endeavor.  Mr. Mali is a hard core bird watcher & has written some books on birds. We were fortunate enough to have his guidance at Nandurmadhameshwar bird sanctuary.

Day 52 -- 3rd February 2014.
Team "Tiger cyclo-walk" delivered presentations for thousands of students at Nashik in many schools & colleges.

Day 56 -- 7th february 2014.
Thane.  Rotary club of Thana West arranged a presentation at Dnyansadhana college, Thane.
Feb 18

Day 59 -- 10th February 2014.
Gateway of India, Mumbai.

As per schedule, the educational awareness endeavor highlands to ocean, "TIGER CYCLO-WALK" came to a halt for this year.
'Dombivli cycle club' joined the "Tiger Cyclo-Walk" on the last lap of the programme.

Wilderness Volunteers

Volunteer patrolling – an innovative venture in Melghat Tiger Reserve

Volunteer patrolling – an innovative venture in Melghat Tiger Reserve
-Jayant Kulkarni and Prachi Mehta,  Wildlife Research and Conservation Society

Melghat is located in Satpura Hill Range, in Amravati District of Maharashtra, on the border with Madhya Pradesh. It is a wild place with steep hills and deep gorges and valleys. It is also hot and dry, especially in summer, as may be expected in Central India. Melghat is clad with dry teak-bearing forests of Central India. Melghat is famous for typical central Indian wildlife such as   tiger, leopard, wild dog, sloth bear, gaur, sambar, muntjac and four horned antelope Melghat supports equally rich bird life such as hornbills, woodpeckers, flycatchers, eagles, owls and a diversity of aquatic birds. Melghat is home to central Indian tribes such as Korku, Gond, Thatia, Balai and Gawli.

Earlier Melghat was one of the prime forests for production of Central Indian teak wood. With the announcement of Project Tiger by the Indian Government, for conservation of the tiger and its ecosystem, the Maharashtra Forest Department decided to establish its first tiger reserve in Melghat. After its declaration as a tiger reserve tree felling was gradually discontinued and the emphasis shifted to wildlife conservation. At present there are about 35 to 40 tigers in Melghat Tiger Reserve.

Sipna Wildlife Division is one of three divisions in Melghat Tiger Reserve. It shares a border with Madhya Pradesh State along the Tapi River. There are several villages in Sipna division and across the border with Madhya Pradesh, which exerts considerable pressures in the form of tree cutting, fire and occasional poaching. Forest Guards of the tiger reserve patrol the forests regularly to protect against these pressures. However, it is a tough task for a few forest guards to patrol the area given the vast area and difficult terrain. Considering this Wildlife Research and Conservation Society (WRCS) conceived the volunteer patrolling program to support the forest guards in their patrolling duties. 

Involvement of citizens in conservation activities is common outside India where volunteers help in habitat restoration, animal rescue, research studies and data collection. However the concept of volunteer involvement in conservation is relatively new in India. Involving volunteers in patrolling activities gives them an opportunity to work closely with Forest Department, understand the difficulties of field staff and also helps in spreading awareness about conservation issues.

WRCS started the volunteer patrolling program in Jarida Range of Sipna Division from March 2013 to February 2014. Volunteers were invited to help in patrolling the area with the field staff of Jarida Range.  Volunteers were expected to stay for a minimum one week and help in patrolling by walking 10 to 15 km every day. . Volunteers arrived every Sunday and participated in the program for one week. On arrival they were given a briefing by the project officer, Mr. Tushar Pawar on the purpose of the program, data collection methods and dos and don’ts during their stay in the forest. Then they were dropped  off at their respective camps. The volunteers stayed in teams of two persons in protection camps of the Forest Department with Forest Guards and camp staff. Volunteers went for patrolling once or twice every day. They walked on patrolling routes and recorded observations on incidents of pressures such as tree cutting, grazing and wildlife sightings in data forms provided to them. Many participants got wonderful photographs and a lucky few saw wild animals like the leopard, wild dog and even the tiger.

The protection camps are simple structures located in the forest with a fence for protection against wild animals. Volunteers were expected to help the camp staff in cooking and other camp duties. Baths were generally in a nearby stream or river. However things were somewhat tougher in camps where the streams were far away.

Staying in the forest and leading a simple life in proximity with nature, without modern amenities, is a unique experience that few people are privileged to have. Most volunteers enjoyed their stay thoroughly. Many volunteers sent glowing descriptions of their participation in the volunteer program. Of course, all was not smooth sailing, and some volunteers did have problems when things did not go according to plan. Most importantly, many volunteers wrote that they felt satisfied about contributing to wildlife conservation.
The enthusiastic participation of volunteers made this program possible - more than 200 volunteers participated in the program. The program was implemented jointly by WRCS and WWF. We worked with several partner organizations; Indian Wildlife Club was one of our important partners. Indian Wildlife Club set up a web page which helped in smooth recruitment of volunteers. The forest officers of Melghat Tiger Reserve were very supportive, which was essential for implementation of such a program.

We believe that the volunteer patrolling program helped in improving protection of forests and wildlife. There was no incidence of poaching in Jarida Range during the implementation of the program. The Forest Department staff also, by and large, welcomed the program because it helped them in protection of the forests and wildlife.

The program has come to an end after completion of one year. We are discussing with the Forest Department to continue the program and increase its scope.

Photographs are by (in order of appearance)  Nitin Kakodkar, Nitin Kakodkar, DP Srivastava, Tushar Pawar, Jasraj Kalshekar

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