Vanishing vultures

Print edition : October 28, 2000

The big birds are dying in large numbers. What is happening?

Text and photographs: HARSH VARDHAN

WHERE have all the vultures gone? The Indian skies wear a vacant, if not gloomy, look without these master- flyers. The municipal dumps present a deserted look without groups of these heavy-built birds. A stench emanates from the rotting animal carcasses in the absence of vultures, which would finish them off within minutes.

Whitebacked vultures perched on the ramparts of Fatehpur Sikri, a January 1996 scene. The Ministry of Environment and Forests prefers to maintain silence over the tragedy that the people would face in the total absence of vultures.-

There has been an alarming crash in the population of the whitebacked vulture (Gyps bengalensis) in India. The birds were found all over the country, often in groups of 20 to 30, quite close to villages and cities, until a few years ago. Now even a singleton is rarely spotted as one covers a long distance. The birds have been observed to be affected by a strange disease. They droop their heads while perched on trees. After remaining like this for some days, they fall dead. Dozens of birds have be en found dead in some parts of the country.

The first case of such deaths was reported by Dr. Vibhu Prakash, a principal scientist of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) who was based at Bharatpur, during 1996-97. He recorded about 40 vulture deaths in the Keoladeo National Park near Bharatp ur by the end of the nesting season in May 1997. Similar observations by his team in North India showed an alarming picture of the tragedy facing Indian vultures.

This writer, along with Dr. Munir Ali Virani and an expert from the United States, Dr. Robert Risebrough, spotted nearly two dozen dead or sick whitebacked vultures at the Project Tiger area in Ranthambhore in April 2000. Visits by the authorities of the park were organised to the locations so that the loss was registered in government records.

The carcass of a vulture in the Project Tiger area at Ranthambhore, found in April 2000.-

Initially it was assumed that the deaths were owing to the deliberate or incidental poisoning of carcasses upon which the birds fed. However, the suspicion of a disease having broken out grew as widespread deaths were reported and the population of the b irds plummeted. The crisis was not confined to the whitebacked vulture population. In certain areas, the longbilled vulture (Gyps indicus) was also observed as having been affected.

The cause of the deaths could be diagnosed only after some foreign experts came to assist the BNHS team. Two carcasses, one from the Keoladeo National Park and the another found in New Delhi, were sent by the BNHS for autopsies to the Indian Wildlife He alth Cooperative (Northern Region) College of Veterinary Sciences, Hissar, which comes under the Indian Wildlife Health Cooperative programme piloted by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehra Dun. The autopsies revealed symptoms of kidney disease: the liver was whitish, with abundant accumulation of what can be assumed to be crystals of uric acid. The condition was similar to that of gout in humans, which results from the accumulation of uric acid. The sick vultures were found to be lethargic.

The message was clear: a new virus or disease accounted for the decline in the vulture population. Could it be a virus acquired from another species, or a new disease factor? The Indian experts were bewildered. They had never encountered such an event. T hanks to speedy moves initiated by organisations based in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, the "vulture riddle" was solved.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, already working with the BNHS on some avian projects, evinced keenness to support further observations and examinations of vulture samples. It directed its expert, Dr. Robert Risebrough, to collaborate with Dr. Vibhu P rakash at Bharatpur and Dr. Asad R. Rahmani, Director of the BNHS, in Mumbai. The Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB), U.K., deputed Dr. Andrew Cunningham, a veterinary pathologist at the Zoological Society of London, to assist the BNHS.

It was felt that more dead or sick vultures had to be brought to an institute of repute in order to ascertain the disease factor. The BNHS tapped several institutes and sought advice from government sources, including the WII and its cooperative base for wildlife health care. Finally, the Pune-based Poultry Diagnostic and Research Centre of Venkateshwara Hatch-eries Ltd responded.

Two sick vultures (both whitebacked) were examined in Pune. Dr. Andrew Cunningham visited the hatcheries to assist its experts to examine the vulture tissue. He tried to reach certain conclusions in a report submitted to the BNHS in February-March 2000.

Dr. Rahmani said: "This report (of Dr. Andrew Cunningham) strengthens the argument in support of a viral disease factor being the cause of the vulture decline, but it does not come to firm conclusions, and it raises several questions, which we hope will be answered shortly."

(Left) G.V. Reddy, Deputy Director of Project Tiger, Ranthambhore, Dr. Robert Risebrough, a U.S.-based expert, and Dr. Munir Ali Virani examine the carcass of a whitebacked vulture.-

Dr. Cunningham visited India again during May-June 2000. "The results of his second visit will provide answers to the questions raised," Dr. Rahmani said. He hoped that it would form "a basis that we can all use to stimulate discussion on and generate wi der publicity for this problem."

According to Dr. Cunningham's report, dehydration, often with visceral gout, appears to be the immediate cause of the deaths and the cause of the dehydration and gout is most likely to be a virus.

Dr. Cunningham's 23-page report makes a comparative statement: " seems reasonable to assume that all three birds (one examined at Hissar, and two at Pune during the past ten months) suffered from the same primary disease and that this is the cause of the current high mortality of Gyps spp. vultures in India."

The veterinary pathologist stated clearly what needs to be done: "Further to my review of the disease, investigations conducted so far and to my own pathological examinations, it appears that the vulture decline in India is due to an infectious disease, most likely one with a viral aetiology. Priority must, therefore, be given to continued investigations to elucidate the cause of this disease. Ideally, in addition to diagnostic work being carried out within India, tissue samples should be exported to on e or more centres of excellence for avian diagnostic work outside India."

The issue of export of tissue samples of vultures has divided avian sympathisers in the country. The BNHS, the lead agency, feels that India is handicapped in respect of the kind of examinations that are required in a sustained manner, first to decipher the causes of the death and, secondly, to develop measures needed to restock the remaining population of healthy whitebacked vultures. Ironically, the 118-year-old BNHS prefers to be quiet about collaborating with such overseas institutes that may be des irous of undertaking examinations of vulture tissue samples. Export of tissue samples requires the permission of the government; green signal from the Convention for International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) is also required to export biological samples.

Rishad Naoroji, a raptor expert, and this writer, advocate the export of vulture tissue samples. This is not to put at stake the national honour or to favour any overseas institution. It is to develop a coordinated effort at the international level, beca use leaving the task only to the Indian experts would spell doom for the vulture.

It is time the authorities realised that (a) the whitebacked vulture is about to become extinct; (b) the species is already extinct in the southeastern neighbourhood (the disease appears to have spread from east to west); (c) the new disease factor among Indian vultures is likely to affect their cousins in Nepal and Pakistan; and (d) the disease may ultimately affect European and African Gyps vultures.

This is not a problem confined to India. Dr. Risebrough has pointed out this fact in his December 1999 report:

"What appears to be an extinction process affecting the two species breeding in peninsular India (whitebacked and longbilled vulture) may also be affecting both the Himalayan griffon (Gyps himalayensis), a winter visitor, and the Indian griffin (< I>Gyps fulvus), that has declined sharply in numbers in recent years. Moreover, a disease would most likely eventually spread to the Gyps vultures of the Middle East (West Asia), Europe and Africa. A census of all potentially affected populations is therefore called for, with particular attention paid to any symptoms suggesting the presence of the disease vector observed in India."

The argument - that the disease is spreading westwards - appears strong enough to justify an action plan much broader in scope than the one attempted so far through the BNHS and addressing itself only to the vultures in and around the Keoladeo National P ark. The question is, who would attempt that?

Dr. Munir Ali Virani, an expert from Kenya, measures the carcass of a whitebacked vulture.-

The BNHS works on a shoe-string budget. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-India has so far probably considered it only as a baby of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Some voluntary wildlife conservation organisations are willing to shoul der the task. However, in the MoEF's eyes, they do not measure up to its standards. And the MoEF, which represents India in all such matters, prefers to maintain a Sphinx-like silence over the tragedy that the people would face in the total absence of vu ltures. There has so far been no sign from the MoEF of formulating a long-term strategy to meet the challenge. Letters addressed to the MoEF in this regard have brought forth no response.

If an international pool of vulture expertise is to be developed, will India join it, and in that case who will initiate the move seeking permission to export tissue samples? The BNHS is unwilling to shoulder the responsibility. On its own, the MoEF has been generally on the defensive in the matter of experiments on the endangered species. It keeps overseas technology and experts at bay and maintains the traditional "forestry approach": let nature heal itself.

Most international experts are willing to accept one or two coordinators to steer the vulture conservation project. They have started identifying persons to work with each country's bird conservation organisation/government and to seek funding from willi ng donors to step up the efforts as early as possible. They strongly feel that the process of extinction does not wait for the government's nod.

Even though India may consider the cause of vulture deaths, as indicated by the tests undertaken at the Pune-based facility, deploying a plan for the next stage does not appear to be on the agenda of the country's "avian stalwarts", including the MoEF ex perts. A laboratory project for the development of a new vaccine needs to be identified. The laboratory ought to have a captive breeding facility, where any number of whitebacked vultures can be kept, attached to it. Flexibility in the matter of import a nd export of biological samples to and from various countries will be a prerequisite for such a programme.

Is India willing to accept such a programme? The MoEF has adopted an indifferent attitude, and it appears that the country has left its vultures to their fate. The foreign experts cannot wait if the Government of India has no time to spare for a species that plays a big role in maintaining public health. Pakistan and Nepal, where the same species of vultures are found, have already been identified as viable options for the project. Experts from the U.S. have outlined a detailed programme to survey vultu res in those areas and put them to tests. The governments of these countries appear to be more interested in this matter than their counterpart in India. The benefits from such experiments will certainly be shared by India, possibly after the native whit ebacked vultures become extinct. And that is going to be one of the saddest experiences in the 5,000-year-old history of the practice of conservation in India.

AN international seminar on the 'Vulture Situation in India' was organised in New Delhi in September. The BNHS took the lead for this. It was financed by the MoEF, the RSPB and Bird Life International.

The Biology and Management Group at the seminar stated that the samples analysed showed that pesticides were not responsible for the widespread deaths though viral effects were observed, and concluded that "it could be a multi-factor issue". It favoured focussed studies on vultures at 11 sites with a general survey all over the country as also collection of samples of the dead and sick birds for further tests. The budget for this would around Rs.55 lakhs.

The Captive Population's Group favoured a new experiment under captive conditions at a cost of Rs.3.5 crores involving the eventual release of vultures into the wild towards the end of the programme. The existing zoo population could be used as a resourc e for this as it is not affected. (There are only 30 whitebacked vultures in Indian zoos (as on March 31, 1999) : seven in Andhra Pradesh, two in Assam, eight in Gujarat, one in Kerala, two in Orissa, seven in Tamil Nadu and three in Tripura.)

A whitebacked vulture that was found dead in a tree in Ranthambhore.-

The Veterinarians', Pathologists' and Toxicologists' Group favoured having "more than one laboratory to examine the samples of vultures". Each laboratory needs to examine about 150 samples. This is unlikely to involve capital expenditure, though extra ma npower would be needed. The budget for one year could be about Rs.71 lakhs.

The three-day event concluded after adopting a multi-purpose resolution that wanted the causative factors for such a widespread loss of birds to be searched. It urged the Government of India to support a Vulture Recovery Plan.

Harsh Vardhan is honorary general secretary of the Tourism and Wildlife Society of India.

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