Captive-bred white-rumped vultures released into the wild in Haryana

Print edition : January 01, 2021

October 10 was a red-letter day for Gyps vultures. The Haryana State Forest Minister released into the wild eight white-rumped vultures of the genus Gyps as a pilot trial from the Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre in Pinjore, northern Haryana. It was a landmark event in the effort to save these birds from extinction. The centre, which is managed by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) with funds from the Haryana Forest Department, the Central government and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Sandy, England, has been the focal point of vulture conservation in India.

Six of the released adult white-rumped vultures were hatched and reared as chicks at the Jatayu Centre while the other two vultures were guide birds who would, as the name suggests, be their guide in the world outside the centre.

Chris Bowden of the RSPB and programme manager of the Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction consortium said: “Since the dramatic vulture declines were first noted in India and across South Asia in the 1990s, and breeding populations of three Critically Endangered vulture species were established in centres, we have eagerly awaited the time when releases can take place in India.”

The released birds have been fitted with GPS tracking devices, which will allow an assessment to be made of the safety of the environment and to confirm whether it is sufficiently clear of diclofenac, the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that was responsible for the cataclysmic decline in vulture populations through the 1990s and 2000s.

Vibhu Prakash of the BNHS, who has overseen the management of the centre since its inception, said: “We have worked hard for almost twenty years to reach this point, and we had to learn from international experts and overcome many hurdles along the way.” Alok Verma, Haryana Chief Wildlife Warden, said: “It’s a tribute to the dedicated BNHS team and a great credit to the Haryana Forest Department that the breeding programme is so successful, and recognised worldwide, and that some of us can be here today to witness this landmark event.” The first release of captive bred white-rumped vultures occurred in Nepal in 2018.

Bowden affirmed that the release “shows we are moving to a new phase in this extraordinary story. Recent monitoring of the so-called Haryana Release Zone, an area within 100 km of the centre (and including five neighbouring States), has shown that the prevalence of diclofenac in both pharmacies and vultures’ food has declined since the national ban was declared 14 years ago. However, it also shows there are still significant and alarming amounts out there, and so this release is a very important trial. The safety-testing of other drugs like nimesulide by the Indian Veterinary Research Institute with BNHS is yet another crucial element which urgently needs to speed up. Satellite-tagging the birds and remaining ready to immediately find and determine the fate of any bird we are concerned about will be the next major challenge. We really hope these released birds will survive, but there is a lot more to do to ensure their environment is safe. For example, one further drug, aceclofenac, which is still in legal veterinary use, has been scientifically demonstrated to convert immediately to diclofenac in cattle, so poses the same threat to vultures. Although steps to ban this drug are under way, this has not yet resulted in action. Until we see how this trial release goes, we should be cautious about planning further releases. But meanwhile let’s celebrate this important milestone.”

In a press statement, John Mallord, senior conservation scientist for the RSPB, said: “We are very keen to closely monitor vultures in the area so would like to ask people to report sick or freshly dead vultures [they find] within 100 km of the release site.”