The successful captive breeding of vultures belonging to three critically endangered species in the flagship conservation centre at Pinjore in Haryana could be a turning point in the struggle to save these birds from extinction in the subcontinent. For many years now, conservation organisations such as the Bombay Natural History Society and its international partner agencies have been working diligently to bring the carrion feeders back from the brink. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests must be commended for recognising, and acting on, the fast-spreading crisis that threatened the future of three species — the oriental white-backed, slender-billed and long-billed vultures. The action plan it formulated and adopted four years ago for their protection has begun to deliver. The real breakthrough came when scientific investigations identified the veterinary drug diclofenac as the cause of fatal visceral gout, which led to the crash in populations during the 1990s. Vultures feasting on carrion of cattle that carried traces of the drug perished not just in India but in neighbouring countries as well. That research consensus helped governments in the major range countries — India, Nepal and Pakistan — to impose a ban on diclofenac veterinary formulations.
The challenge before conservationists now is to create ‘safe zones' in areas where both rare populations and captive-bred birds can survive. Such areas require a mix of community participation, substitution of diclofenac with the benign drug meloxicam, and projects to acquire large numbers of dying cattle that pose no toxic risk. There are encouraging results from such measures in Nepal. Given the plenitude of cattle in India, it is eminently possible to start such safe shelters. Although they may not be the birds of heaven that cranes are to some, there is tremendous interest in watching these alert scavengers of nature in their natural setting. Africa has recognised the potential for revenue from vulture ‘restaurants' — where tourists can watch them dispose of a carcass. The BNHS has also proposed viewing platforms for eco-tourists at feeding sites. This can be a rewarding programme that also pays for itself. There are parallel initiatives under way in many countries in Africa and Europe to arrest vulture population declines. India can learn a lot from their good practice. What is most important is to safeguard the birds in forests and protected habitat by preventing encroachment by domestic cattle. Combined with a strong captive breeding programme, this should go some way towards stopping the tragic decline in vulture numbers.