The Gist of Science Reporter: December 2014

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 live.

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 of time.

Vulture Restaurants

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 disturbing them.

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