India’s southernmost vulture population stands at 320 individuals

The survey was conducted in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, the Billigiri Ranganatha Swamy Temple Tiger Reserve, the Nagerhole Tiger Reserve, the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and the Nellai Forest Division

January 26, 2024 06:45 am | Updated 06:45 am IST - UDHAGAMANDALAM

Image for representational purposes only.

Image for representational purposes only. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU

More than 300 vultures were recorded in the recently completed synchronous vulture survey in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) encompassing parts of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, according to data from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department.

According to the data, the Mudumalai-Sathyamangalam-Bandipur-Wayanad complex of the NBR accounted for over 82% of the vultures recorded during the survey. The highest number was recorded in the Mudumalai and Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserves in Tamil Nadu.

The survey was conducted in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, the Billigiri Ranganatha Swamy Temple Tiger Reserve, the Nagerhole Tiger Reserve, the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and the Nellai Forest Division.

A total of 217 critically endangered white-rumped vultures (Gyps bengalensis), 47 long-billed vultures (Gyps indicus), 50 Asian king vultures (Sarcogyps calvus), four endangered Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus) and two “near threatened” Himalayan griffon vultures (Gyps himalayensis) were recorded during the survey.

The NBR is home to three resident species: the white-rumped, long-billed and Asian king vultures. It is also home to the last viable populations of the three species south of the Vindhya Range.

In a statement, the Forest Department said the number of vultures had increased since the last synchronous vulture census, conducted in February 2023, when 246 vultures were recorded. In the most recent survey, conducted in December 2023, the number of vultures recorded had increased to 320 individuals.

The four Egyptian vultures and two Himalayan griffon vultures were sighted in the Nellai Forest Division and the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.

Speaking to The Hindu, Supriya Sahu, Additional Chief Secretary, Environment, Climate Change, and Forests, said the Tamil Nadu government had prepared a framework for vulture conservation across the State with the creation of an expert panel in 2022, headed by the Chief Wildlife Warden.

She said that among the successes scored by the panel was the formulation and implementation of the carcass-handling protocol to ensure more availability of food for the scavengers. “Previously, in the case of natural deaths of large animals like elephants, the carcasses would be buried after post-mortem. However, since the protocol has been in force, the carcasses are left for the vultures and other scavengers..., Ms. Sahu said.

“The State has also strictly implemented the ban on Non-Steroidal Anti Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), such as diclofenac, that are used in veterinary treatments and harmful to vultures,” Ms. Sahu said. She added that 104 manufacturers and sellers of multi-dose diclofenac vials were prosecuted for the sale of the drug.

Total vultures:
Total number of vultures recorded in survey – 320
Total number of White-rumped vultures recorded – 217
Total number of Long-billed vultures recorded – 47
Total number of Red-headed or Asian king vultures – 50
Egyptian vulture and Himalayan griffon vulture – 6

The State government also plans to open a rescue and rehabilitation center for injured vultures and works towards declaring “vulture-safe zones” where there will be no use of NSAIDs.

Conservationists and researchers, who have studied vultures in the region, say that the vulture population has stabilised in the last decade. H. Byju, a researcher and author of Valley of Hope – Moyar and Vultures, says more needs to be done to safeguard India’s southernmost population of vultures.

“For instance, the reasons as to why the Egyptian vulture is found commonly across Karnataka and sporadically in Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi and not within the NBR, as well as researchers’ continuing inability to find the Asian king vulture’s nesting sites indicates the need for more research about the population,” said Mr. Byju. He adds the spread of invasive species, the withering of trees that the vultures rely on for nesting, and forest fires remain existential threats to the population that need to be controlled if the population is to increase in the coming years.

S. Bharathidasan, secretary of Arulagam, a non-governmental organisation working in wildlife conservation and a member of the State-level Committee for Vulture Conservation, says the increase in the population indicates that it is steady. To further increase the population, the availability of carcasses is important, he says. Cattle carcasses and road kills must be left in the open in the fringe areas, after they are tested for harmful drugs, to ensure food for the scavenging wildlife, he notes. 

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