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All About Vultures

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  • The crash in their population from estimated 4 crores in the early 1980s to less than a lakh by 2007 in India is unprecedented in the animal world.
  • Outside of the oceans, vultures are the only known obligate scavengers.
  • The ecological, social and cultural significance of vultures in India may be summed up as: scavenging on animal carcasses and thereby helping keep the environment clean.
  • There are nine species of vultures in India out of which three have been on critically endangered list of IUCN and also listed under Schedule I of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. 
  • White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis
  • Slender billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris
  • Indian Vulture/long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus
  • Himalayan Griffon – closely related to Indian Gyps – Near Threatened 
  • Egyptian Vulture – Endangered 
  • Red-headed vulture is on the critically endangered list of IUCN but not listed under Schedule I of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972. (Schedule IV) 

ROLE OF VULTURES IN ECOSYSTEM

  • Nature’s most efficient scavengers.
  • This prevented the outbreak of epidemics – bacteria and fungi can’t grow on them.
  • Cultural significance – Parsis
  • Other scavengers such as rats and feral dogs moved in when their numbers declined but they lack the efficiency of vultures whose metabolism is a true ‘dead-end’ for pathogens. Dogs and rats, instead, become carriers of the pathogens spreading disease.

Threats

  • A major threat to vultures is the painkiller diclofenac used by veterinarians to treat cattle. 

Effects

  • When vultures consume these carcasses, diclofenac enters their system, but they are unable to metabolize it. 
  • It results in uric acid accumulating in the birds’ blood and crystallizing around their internal organs, a condition called visceral gout.
  • Accumulation of diclofenac results in gout-like symptoms such as neck drooping(Thanatosis), kidney failure and ultimately leading to death. 

Aceclofenac

  • Indian Veterinary Research Institute has demanded a ban on using aceclofenac in cattle. 
  • Aceclofenac is a veterinary painkiller. 
  • It metabolises into diclofenac in water buffaloes and cows which eventually threatens vulture populations in the country. 

Drugs Toxic to Vulture

  • Diclofenac has long been established as the prime reason for wiping out 99 percent of the vulture population in India in the 90s. 
  • Later two more veterinary drugs, aceclofenac and ketoprofen, were found to be toxic for vultures. 
  • As per the new study, nimesulide appears to act similar to diclofenac in exerting toxic effects on vultures.
  • Flunixin
  • Carprofen

Safe Drugs for Vultures

  • Meloxicam 
  • Tolfenamic acid 

Conservation Measures

  • First Vulture Care Centre (VCC) was set up at Pinjore, Haryana in 2001. (to know the cause of decline)
  • Later in 2004, the VCC was upgraded to being the first Vulture Conservation and Breeding Centres (VCBC) in India. 
  • At present there are nine Vulture Conservation and Breeding Centres (VCBC) in India, of which three are directly administered by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).  
  • The main objective of the VCBCs was to look after the vultures and breed them in captivity and also release them into the wild. 
  • The Bombay Natural History Society and the RSPB (UK) are working as part of Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE). 
  • Every four years, they set out on a survey of epic proportions, covering 15,500km of road in 13 states across India, counting individual vultures of each of the three species.

Vulture census

  • Vulture census was conducted in 2022.
  • The last such census was carried out in 2015.
  • The census would be conducted by scientists at the Bombay Natural History Society (a conservation NGO), along with teams from the 13 states and the MoEFCC. 
  • Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. 

Vulture Safe zone

  • Establishment of at least one vulture-safe zone in each state for the conservation of the remnant populations in that state. 
  • Action Plan for Vulture Conservation 2020 – 2025
  • The action plan was approved by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) in 2020. 
  • An earlier one was formulated in 2006 for three years. 
  • The new plan has laid out strategies and actions to stem the decline in vulture population, especially of the three Gyps species: 
    • Oriental white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis
    • Slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris)
    • Long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus
  • This would be done through both ex-situ and in-situ conservation.
  • The plan has also suggested that new veterinary non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) be tested on vultures before their commercial release. 

International Efforts 

  • SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction) – It includes fourteen organisations involved and committed to helping the vultures to date, and this number is steadily growing. 
  • Bombay Natural History Society works with SAVE.

International Vulture Conservation Awareness Day

  • The initiative is run jointly by the Birds of Prey Programme of the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa and the Hawk Conservancy Trust in England.
  • Through IVAD, both the organisation try to raise awareness about the threats that vultures are facing today and promote a coordinated international effort to publicise the conservation of vultures to a wider audience.

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