The vulture has been associated with death and decay across cultures. The forbidding, ghoulish look of an ugly bald headed bird feeding voraciously on a decaying and foul-smelling carcass is a repelling site. This was probably the reason why the sharp fall in vulture population sometime in early 90s was noticed so late.It was only in late 90s that the Bombay Natural History Society documented the catastrophic decline in vulture population drew the worldwide attention of naturalists and wildlife experts to the grave threat to nature’s most efficient scavengers. The numbers in India fell from an estimated 40 million to barely 60,000 by the start of the new millenium. The sharp decline in the population is now reliably attributed to the use of diclofenac as a veterinary medicine that has proved lethal to this scavenging bird. Of the nine species of vultures that are recorded from the Indian subcontinent, the worst hit were the three belonging to the genus ‘Gyps’: the White-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis), Long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus) and Slender-billed (Gyps tenuerostris) vultures that were until the 80s by far the most populous species in India.
A ‘Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre’ was established at Pinjore, Haryana in September 2001 by Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in collaboration with the Haryana Forest Department with financial and other support from the Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species Fund of the Government of UK, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB),the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the National Birds of Prey Trust, UK. The centre is spread over 5 acres of land in the Morni foothills at village Jodhpur, on the fringe of the Bir Shikargarh Wildlife Sanctuary. The campus has a five foot high perimeter fence.
Some 150 odd vultures are housed at the centre including the White-backed vultures, Long-billed vultures, Slender-billed vultures, and Himalayan griffons. All the vultures have a plastic ring, a wing tag, and a microchip transponder for individual identification. These birds have been collected by collecting nestlings from breeding areas and trapping juveniles.The trappers entice the birds with carcasses and then trap the feeding birds by applying an extremely sticky glue on the feathers with the help of a long pole. Birds have been brought in from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Delhi and Haryana.Injured birds are brought in from Gujarat, where birds get entangled with the glass-coated kite strings during the annual kite flying competetion at Ahmedabad and often end up with serious injuries.
The centre has ‘Nursery’ aviaries for providing nest like environment for rearing of nestlings.The ‘Hospital’ aviaries are for the injured and sick birds. The ‘Quarantine’aviaries hold the new birds that are brought to the centre for 45 days.Then there are large ‘Colony’ aviaries that allow the birds to do wing exercises by flying from one end to another. The birds feed communally on carcasses, exactly as they do in the wild. The ‘Holding’ aviaries are intermediate between Quarantine and Colony aviaries. The aviaries are very modest-looking, no-frills structures with the environmentalists focussing their resources only on the functional aspects. The vultures nest on shelves made of woven-jute that are much like the cots used in the Indian countryside.
The behaviour of birds is studied through CCTV to minimize human contact. Vultures feel threatened by human presence and vomit a foul smelling bilous substance to discourage approach. Excessive contact with humans proved detrimental in a similar Condor breeding programme in USA where the ‘farm-bred’ Condors would return to the Breeding Centre despite having being released in the wild, as they were unable to manage without their human care-givers.
The centre has a State-of-the-Art Laboratory for conducting bio-chemistry studies and tests on birds and for testing presence of diclofenac in animal carcasses. Vultures are fed twice a week on carcasses of freshly slaughtered (and skinned) goats from the goat herd reared for the purpose on the Centre, with each adult getting 4 KG of meat per week. The vultures are extremely social creatures and all vultures feed together. Fights are extremely rare with the hungrier vulture being allowed to feed first! They bathe together in small-baths kept in the aviaries after feeding. The birds refuse to bathe if water is dirty and has not been changed! Perches have been created and positioned strategically to recreate a natural environment inside the aviaries. The aviaries are not disturbed and are cleaned only once a month to remove bones of goat carcasses fed to the vultures.
The breeding programme focused on forming a founder population of vultures of each of the threatened species in the first phase. The vulture starts breeding at 4 to 7 years of age. Early efforts at breeding proved discouraging as the first two eggs failed to hatch in January 2006. The breeding progamme received a major breakthrough with the successful hatching of two chicks in 2008. Vibhu, a vulture chick hatched on January 20, 2008 after 52 days of incubation and left its nest after 118 days of nestling period. Phoenix hatched on March 5, after 57 days of incubation and left the nest on July 8 after 126 days of nestling period. As many as 45 chicks have since been successfully hatched both naturally as well as in incubators. A difficulty with breeding of vultures in captivity is that vultures are monogamous birds and they maintain the loyalty of conjugal lives till deaths. Only one egg is expected from a pair in one season. The breeding centre circumvents this problem by employing a method called “double clutching”. While the mother lays only one egg at a time yet if that egg is removed from its nest within a few days of laying, the mother gets tricked into laying another egg. The first one is put into an artificial incubator and monitored round the clock till it hatches. The temperature in the incubation unit has to be constantly controlled and the egg has to be delicately rolled over.
The centre is run by a dedicated team led by the Principal Scientist Dr. Vibhu Prakash from the Bombay Natural History Society , who was amongst the first to notice vulture deaths in the mid 90s. Dr. Prakash is an expert on raptors and has spent 30 years of his life in the study of birds. He has also worked with the famous ornithologist Dr. Salim Ali.
The Centre has an ambitious target of breeding and releasing a 100 pairs by 2012 in an identified area where the use of diclofenac has been banned. The birds would be released with a solar-powered GPS tag that would keep conveying the location of the bird for a period of three years. The experts from the Centre affixed one such tag to a Himalayan Griffon trapped in Bari-Sher area of Morni. The vulture flew till as far as Mongolia before returning to Bari-Sher in the winter.
The team was confronted with a sudden and unforeseen challenge when a large bee-hive in the close vicinity of the campus was attacked by a honey-buzzard. Swarms of angry bees descended upon the aviaries stinging as many as 16 vultures. This kind of attack on vultures was completely unheard of. The team has now worked out a treatment for bee-stings for the vultures in the eventuality of a fresh bee attack. The Bir Shikargarh Wildlife Sanctuary that surrounds VCBC is full of bee hives.
The challenges before the centre include the tedious and long drawn process of breeding and the murmur of protests by some environmentalists over the collection of nestlings and trapping of adults. It remains to be seen whether this novel and dedicated effort is able to save the fabled ‘Jatayu’ from extinction.