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Enumerating vultures

Print edition : Oct 28, 2000 T+T-

HOW many vultures survive today in India? The birds were so common and frequently observed that birdwatchers never put a bench-mark on their status and distribution apart from what the Britishers did a century ago to identify their characteristics.

As the population of Gyps vultures plummeted, the Tourism and Wildlife Society of India (TWSI) initiated a vulture census. Advertisements were published in The Rajasthan Patrika - courtesy the management of the daily - on December 28, 30 and 31 19 99, appealing to the readers to respond by filling in a coupon if they found a vulture.

A total of 16,912 vultures were reported by 2,005 people during January and early February 2000. The area covered was Rajasthan and parts of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. As many as 8,194 birds (48 per ce nt of the sightings) were reported by 813 persons (40 per cent of the respondents) during the peak period (February 1-7, 2000). During the second week (February 8-15, 2000), 2,229 vultures (13 per cent) were reported by 305 (15 per cent) respondents. The rest of the sightings were during the remaining period.

The census estimated 0.03 vulture per sq km in the arid and semi-arid areas (one vulture over 30 sq km). It was 0.07 vulture per sq km in the plains and hilly tracts (2-3 vultures over 30 sq km). The census was confined to two species that face a severe threat: the whitebacked vulture (Gyps bengalensis) and the longbilled vulture (Gyps indicus). All respondents reported that the number of vultures had fallen drastically and animal carcasses were lying unconsumed, causing the threat of a br eakout of diseases.

Each respondent was given a certificate and a colour photograph of the whitebacked vulture (by Harkirat Singh Sangha).

The report of the census was presented to the Ministry of Environment and Forests by the Department of Forests, Rajasthan, on July 31, 2000.