The Gist of Science Reporter: December 2014
Vuture Restaurants: Time to Serve them
Vultures have served human beings since time immortal. They
have been always there to provide us with their free services. But humans have
paid no attention to their noble involvement in keeping the environment clean.
And now, when we have pushed the vultures to the brink of extinction there are
cries to save them.
Several projects have been unfolded over the past few years
to conserve vultures, funded both by the Government as well as NGOs. Since the
reasons for vulture decline vary from place to place, conservational measures
too vary - while some places require reforestation, others are setting up
diclofenac-free zones, some places are trying to put a halt to anthropogenic
disturbances such as shooting of movies in monuments with vulture colonies, and
there are also efforts to set up rescue and rehabilitation centres.
Vultures on the Decline
There is no single cause of vulture decline. The causes vary
country wise as well as regionally. In many countries shooting, poisoning, low
food availability and persecution resulted in depleting population of these
scavengers. Carnivore poisoning continues to be common, especially in Europe and
Africa to “protect” livestock from predators. Shooting vultures has long been
there was in earlier periods (less documented in the United States, Europe, and
North Africa, where the activity appears to be largely for sport.
During the last decade, the diclofenac theory gained wide acceptance as the
main cause of the decline in India. Diclofenac is a widely used medicine for
scavengers both humans and livestock.
Extra demands for land, food and other resources have also
resulted in the degradation or destruction of vulture habitats. Vultures need
cliffs, old monuments and large trees for nesting and roosting. The cliffs are
destroyed due to mining; monuments are disturbed due to non-maintenance, tourism
as well as shooting schedules during breeding seasons. Painting of historical
temples and monuments has also led to the disturbance of nests that vultures had
been using year after year.
The inter-ministerial central team reported that 64% forest
in Uttar Pradesh and more than 50% in Madhya Pradesh are degraded. Bundelkhand,
devoid of forest cover, looks like a barren land with naked mounds of hills.
Logging and mining are two major reasons for deforestation.
Lack of food because of modernization of primitive
slaughterhouses and closing down of innumerable carcass dumps and feeding sites,
especially in cities and towns as well as rural areas with civil and military
airfields nearby, has also reduced the vulture populations. The poor farmers
sell their old and sick cattle to slaughter houses. This practice of purchasing
sick and infirm cattle for skin and meat by slaughtering agents has created
shortages of food for these carrion eaters.
In South India, vultures disappeared one and a half to two
decades ago because certain communities in India such as Bandolu (Banda) in
Guntur and Prakasam districts of Andhra Pradesh, Bapne near Mumbai and in
villages near Sasan Gir and Vishwaneedan near Bangalore used to catch vultures
to eat them as normal food or on festive days. During the cyclonic storm that
struck coastal Andhra Pradesh in 1990 no vulture was available to dispose of
numerous livestock killed by the storm in this area.
In Rajasthan there are cases of nest destruction as well as
cutting of trees occupied by vultures due to superstitions. The people of
Bundelkhand region use vulture eyes to locate hidden treasures. This belief is
associated with the keen eyesight of vultures. They even use vulture eggs for
black magic so as to bring back the dead to life. The contemplation is that the
parent vultures will bring some supernatural plants so as to make the dead egg
Aviation authorities have also killed vultures. For nearly
two decades attempts were made to eliminate vulture populations for the
dangerous hazard they pose to aviation. Airport bird controllers do not want to
be held responsible for bird-hit caused aircraft accidents. Killing birds by
shooting has been and is a practice at civil and military aerodromes the world
over. This is a short sighted solution because extinction or total wipe-out of
these crucial scavengers is possible through sustained persecution over a period
Availability of nesting sites and food availability are
important factors for the survival of any species. There have been disturbances
in the food sources of vultures since the past few decades. For example, in the
Bundelkhand region farmers have faced drought since the past decade and are
therefore forced to reduce the number of cattle. Hence, the availability of food
for vultures has also reduced substantially.
The cattle keeping pattern and the disposal of dead cattle
are also responsible for food shortage. The dead cattle which were earlier left
for the vultures to feed are now buried. Vultures depend on carnivore kills in
the forest areas and on cattle flesh in unprotected areas for food. The
deterioration of both has led to scarcity of food for them.
Feeding sites have also been destroyed due to urbanization
and drying up of small water bodies. For instance, the feeding sites of vultures
in Gwalior have been used up for construction of apartments and institutes.
Moreover the carcasses available are unsafe due to deliberate poisoning by
villagers to kill carnivores causing threat to their cattle or they may contain
harmful contaminants such as diclofenac which is considered to be a major cause
of vulture decline.
Vulture restaurants are a solution to this problem when run
following the standards required. A vulture restaurant supplements the bird’s
natural food supplies in an undisturbed area with safe meat and offal. Bones can
be chipped to ensure calcium and mineral availability. Dead cattle are placed at
a designated dining place where vultures then come to feed. A hide is ideally
placed to observe the vultures while they feed without scavengers to feed
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