Bombay Natural History Society has conducted the survey in wildlife sanctuaries in and around the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve

: A field survey on the vulture population in the wildlife sanctuaries in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and adjacent sanctuaries, conducted by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), has found that the number of these bird species is declining at an alarming rate in the region. The survey attributes the sharp decline to the availability of a banned painkiller given to domestic cattle. Feeding on the carcasses of cattle to which the drug is administered turns fatal for the bird species.

A five-member team recently surveyed the region, reportedly the only existing habitat of different species of vulture in South India. The region includes the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala, the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and the Sathyamangalam Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, and the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and the Rajiv Gandhi National Park at Nagarhole in Karnataka.

C. Sasikumar, ornithologist and chief investigator of the team, told The Hindu that the population of oriental white-backed vultures (Gyps bengalensis) in the whole area could be 100 to 150 as against the 300 sighted in the Mudumalai sanctuary alone during a survey conducted by the BHNS in 1992. The region was a good habitat of the oriental white-backed vulture, red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus), and the Indian long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus), and a good number of these species were recorded in the area, according to a survey report of the society in 1992. As many as 22 red-headed vultures and one Indian long-billed vulture had been recorded during that survey in the Mudumalai sanctuary alone. However, the recent survey reveals that the population of these species has dwindled considerably. The number of red-headed vulture could be nearly 20 and the Indian long-billed vulture is extremely rare in the entire region now, Mr. Sasikumar says.

Once common

Red-headed and the white-backed vultures were common in Kerala during the 1930s as recorded in the Travancore Bird Survey by Salim Ali, says C.K. Vishnudas, a member of the team. “But we could not sight a single bird of the species in the State, except in the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, during a bird survey organised by the Kerala Forest and Wildlife Department a few months ago,” he says.

It was established in 2004 that diclofenac, (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, used widely as a painkiller in livestock in the Indian subcontinent) was fatal for the vulture. Hence, the Union government had banned the use and production of veterinary diclofenac in May 2006. Vultures feed mainly on the carcasses of wild ungulates and as long as they remain within the forested area, they are safe from contaminated food. But the tribal villages within and around these protected areas have a very large cattle population and vultures consume the carcasses of these domestic animals. The availability of diclofenac at drug stores in the townships adjacent to the sanctuaries such as Masinagudi in Tamil Nadu and Gundlupet in Karnataka poses a great threat to the existing vulture population, Mr. Sasikumar says.

The oriental white-backed vulture moves up to 226 km a day during foraging and the home range of the species can be very large, in some cases several thousand square kilometres, he adds. This underlines the importance of creating a diclofenac-free environment for the vultures to be safe, he says.

Awareness

A study organised by voluntary organisations in the region a few months ago found that most of the stakeholders, including villagers, cattle owners, veterinary experts, and drug store owners, were unaware of the ban on diclofenac or its effect on vultures, Mr. Sasikumar says.

“This is a very dangerous situation as far as vultures are concerned, and if not controlled immediately, the remaining vulture population here will be extinct soon,” he says.

A regular monitoring programme is needed to protect the surviving populations in the area, he adds.