Vultures of Vindhyas

Famous for its tigers and diamonds, not many know that Panna Tiger Reserve’s colossal cliffs are also home to seven different species of vultures. Out of the nine species in India, most of them dead, disappeared and extinct, seven are found in these undulating Vindhyanchal ranges that offer refuge to this flying scavenger. These birds breed and nest in the innumerable rocky shelves of Panna’s mountains that are coated with white excrement, like an abstract painting. Considered a critically endangered species, the Indian government has listed three of these vulture species in ‘Schedule-I’ category; they are protected by the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Interestingly, even tigers fall in the Schedule-I category. 

The Panna habitat became a happy revelation after the vulture population jumped by 39 per cent compared to that in 2011. The documentation was conducted by the forest department and wildlife experts who monitored popular vulture sites. 

During the exercise, the team confirmed presence of seven different varieties of these winged scavengers: Oriental White-Backed, Long Billed, Egyptian, Red Headed, Eurasian Griffon, Himalayan Griffon, and Cinereous. The first four live in these forests all through the year, while the rest are migratory who arrive in winter. Last year, the average vulture count of the park stood at 1,079, but the number has now swelled to 1,510. While 38 sites were monitored this year, only 25 were documented in 2011. 

The estimation revealed a decrease in the numbers of Long Billed and Cinereous vultures, and 97 vultures were put in the ‘unknown category’. Experts believe that it is difficult for eclectics to notice the difference between the Long Billed and Himalayan Griffin vultures, and hence the need for this category. 

However, growing acceptance of the notorious drug Diclofenac in nearby villages has become a cause of concern among forest officials. A non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, Diclofenac is fed to cattle to reduce joint pains and is consumed by the vulture while scavenging the carcass. The drug causes renal failure in several vulture species and is considered the principal reason for their dwindling population in the Indian subcontinent. Sadly, even after being banned for veterinary use in 2005, Diclofenac continues to wreak havoc on vulture populations across the country. The drug is still used due to its cost-effectiveness.

Earlier, it was observed that the use of Diclofenac was not prevalent around Panna as poor villagers couldn’t afford the medicine. Recent trends, however, indicate that the drug has slowly found its way into adjoining villages, raising concern among wildlife officials. The forest department is taking stringent actions to prevent its sale around the reserve, but if the trend continues, vultures could be staring at complete annihilation in one of their last bastions. 

“We lost the tigers, but we can’t afford to lose the vultures as it will create havoc in the region, and can even lead to an outbreak of a severe epidemic. These master scavengers are responsible for keeping our environment clean and they should continue to do so,” says Park Director RS Murthy. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2012

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