Vultures are not the most lovable of birds. Say the word robin and people think of spring. Say hummingbirds and the immediate image is small and fast.
But say the word vulture and what comes to mind is carcasses.
Vultures were once in abundance in India. But in less than three decades their numbers have declined drastically. A survey across India once estimated that in 1991-1992 there were over 40 million vultures. There were so many of them that they were until recently too numerous to enumerate.
But vultures are dying in large numbers and there are fears in India that they could disappear. In the town of Sivasagar, Assam, 36 vultures died March 17 after eating a poisoned goat carcass. The carcass had been deliberately poisoned to bait feral dogs.
The vultures were in three different species including two that are critically endangered, according to The Wire
The vultures included the Himalayan griffon (Gyps himalayensis), Oriental white-backed (Gyps bengalensis) and slender-billed (Gyps tenuirostris) vulture. The last two are considered critically endangered. The birds died within half an hour of feeding on the carcass. Seven others were rescued, rehabilitated and released.
This is not a lone incident of vultures dying en masse in India, and poisons are not the only killers of these scavenging raptors. Since December last year, more than 60 vultures have been found dead along the Jaisalmer-Ramdevra railway track in Rajasthan.
Sumit Dookia, a conservationist and ecologist who worked on the Rajasthan case, told The Wire that about 15% of the vultures in Jaisalmer could have died after being hit by trains in the last 6 months. The vulture deaths are linked to the death of other animals near the track, particularly that of cows. Villagers from Dholia and Khetolai in Jaisalmer have tried to remove animal carcasses from near the railway tracks to prevent vultures from getting mowed down by trains, but that has not completely solved the problem, according to Dookia.
This is also not a lone incident of vultures getting mowed down by trains. In another episode that occurred near Jorbeer Vulture Sanctuary in Rajasthan in April 2017, 31 vultures were killed by a train.
Speaking to The Wire, Chris Bowden, the co-chair of the vulture specialist group at the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said:
When vultures feed on carcasses in large numbers, many have their heads buried deep in the animal’s flesh, and are unfortunately not well adapted to fast moving trains appearing suddenly”. He added that the trains catch the vultures in a particularly vulnerable moment when they are weighed down with full crop, unable to quickly fly high or away from oncoming trains.
Three decade-long vulture deaths
Environmentalists are fighting tooth and nail to record and formulate plans to prevent vulture deaths, as India has been facing mass mortality of vultures. Three of India’s vulture species have been on the list of critically endangered animals since 2000. Almost 95% of the raptors in India were dead by 2003, and more than 99% were wiped out by 2008.
A paper published in Bird Conservation International in December 2017, noted that the population of the three Gyps species of vultures inhabiting India reduced from millions in the 1970s, to a few thousands.