By Doreen Fiedler
White-backed vultures are the guests at India’s first Vulture Restaurant in the Phansad wildlife sanctuary near Murud in the western state of Maharashtra.
The dish of the day is laid out on stony ground at the centre of a clearing right next to the drinking trough for the mammals. There are large trees for the birds (Gyps bengalensis) to alight on.
“We put out a carcase every three or four days,” says Sunil Limaye, the senior state game warden in the city of Pune who is responsible for the Phansad sanctuary. The vultures are fed cattle, sheep or goats.
“So far the results are good. The vultures are laying eggs,” Limaye says, expressing the hope that similar projects will be launched in Maharashtra and further afield across India.
South Asia’s vulture population needs all the help it can get since farmers began using the anti-inflammatory painkiller diclofenac in the 1990s. The birds are unable to break down the drug, which was initially developed for use in humans but causes renal failure in vultures.
Numbers of white-backed vultures — once the most common large raptor in the world — have collapsed by more than 99 per cent across the Indian subcontinent.
The species is now threatened by extinction in India, Nepal and Pakistan, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Indian vulture and the slender-billed vulture have seen similar population crashes.
Indian biologist Vibhu Prakash has been campaigning to save the vultures for decades, taking a different approach to that of the Indian state authorities.
His Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) is backing a breeding programme. “We catch young birds and rear them to adulthood. We then incubate their fertilised eggs and will soon start to release this new generation into the wild,” he says.
Prakash remains unimpressed by the state’s feeding programme. “There is adequate habitat, no real enemies and sufficient food for the vultures — both wild and domesticated animals,” he says.
Even if carrion becomes scarce in one area, the birds can easily fly hundred of kilometres with wingspans that can exceed two metres. “The real problem is that diclofenac continues to be used.”
While the drug has been banned for veterinary use since 2006, it continues to be sold in pharmacies in multiple units that would be sufficient for cattle if taken together.
The BNHS has tested livestock carcases across the country and discovered that 6 per cent of the carcases contained diclofenac intended for human use - half the number before the ban, but still too high for vulture populations to recover.
“But we don’t find birds that have starved to death,” Prakash says.
The Maharashtra authorities have set up a number of cameras to observe vulture nests in cooperation with the Ela conservation organisation. Of the 15 chicks observed, seven have died because they were not fed, says ELA ornithologist Satish Pande.
He notes that there are much fewer livestock carcases than previously, since Indian farmers have been compelled to bury their dead animals or to spray them with pesticide. This has made the vulture restaurants essential in his view.
German bird protection expert Lars Lachmann also sees feeding the vultures as a good idea, as the carcases offered are free of diclofenac. “In this way a few birds can be saved that might otherwise have eaten poisoned meat,” he says.
Lachmann notes that Spain has a similar programme in which carcases are laid out at pre-determined spots. But concerns about European vultures are rising since diclofenac was licensed for use in Spain and Italy in 2013. —DPA
A handout photo of a white-backed vulture with its young in a nest in the Western Ghats mountain range. Photo: ELA/dpa