Monday, January 26, 2009

Vanishing Species - Ganges River Dolphin

An article by Mohan Pai

Ganges River Dolphin

(Platanista gangetica )

The blind dolphin of River Ganges.

The Gangetic dolphin, declared one of the world’s first protected species more than 2,000 years ago, during the reign of Emperor Ashoka (265-232BC) is heading for extinction. Now fewer than 2000 individuals survive.

The Ganges River dolphin,also known susu for the sound made when they breathe at the wate’s surface, is a very strange-looking dolphin. The body is robust and soft, with a flexible neck, often characterized by a constriction or crease. The long beak is distinct from the steep forehead, but there is no crease between them. The beak is like a pair of forceps, is laterally compressed, and widens at the tip; it is proportionately longer in females than in males. The blowhole, unlike that of most cetaceans, is a slit that runs along the long axis of the animal's body. There is a shallow ridge on the melon, in front of the blowhole. The eyes are extremely small and are located above the distinctly upturned corners of the mouth. Although its eye lacks a lense(this species is also referred to as the “blind dolphin”, the dolphin still uses its eye to locate itself. The dorsal fin is a very low and wide-based triangle about two-thirds of the way to the flukes, which are concave along the rear margin. The broad flippers usually have a flat trailing edge, but it is sometimes scalloped.
Biology and Behaviour
As is true for most of the river dolphins, Ganges River dolphins generally live in small groups of less than 10 individuals, and are most often seen alone or in pairs. They are active animals, but they do not often engage in leaps. In captivity, these dolphins appear to spend much of their time swimming on their sides, and they constantly emit echolocation clicks.

The Ganges and Indus River Dolphins are essentially identical in appearance. They have the long, pointed noses characteristic of all river dolphins. The teeth are visible in both the upper and lower jaws even when the mouth is closed. The teeth of young animals are almost an inch long, thin and curved; however, as animals age the teeth undergo considerable changes and in mature adults become square, bony, flat disks. The snout thickens towards its end. Navigation and hunting are carried out using echolocation. The body is a brownish colour and stocky at the middle. The species has only a small triangular lump in the place of a dorsal fin. The flippers and tail are thin and large in relation to the body size, which is about 2-2.2 meters in males and 2.4-2.6 m in females. The oldest recorded animal was a 28 year old male 199 centimeters in length . Mature adult females are larger than males. Sexual dimorphism is expressed after females reach about 150 cm; the female rostrum continues to grow after the male rostrum stops growing, eventually reaching approximately 20 cm longer. Calves have been observed between January and May and do not appear to stay with the mother for more than a few months. Gestation is thought to be approximately 9-10 months.The species feeds on a variety of shrimp and fish, including carp and catfish. Dolphins are usually encountered on their own or in loose aggregations; they do not form tight, obviously interacting groups.

The Ganges and Indus River Dolphins are essentially identical in appearance. They have the long, pointed noses characteristic of all river dolphins. The teeth are visible in both the upper and lower jaws even when the mouth is closed. The teeth of young animals are almost an inch long, thin and curved; however, as animals age the teeth undergo considerable changes and in mature adults become square, bony, flat disks. The snout thickens towards its end. Navigation and hunting are carried out using echolocation. The body is a brownish colour and stocky at the middle. The species has only a small triangular lump in the place of a dorsal fin. The flippers and tail are thin and large in relation to the body size, which is about 2-2.2 meters in males and 2.4-2.6 m in females. The oldest recorded animal was a 28 year old male 199 centimeters in length . Mature adult females are larger than males. Sexual dimorphism is expressed after females reach about 150 cm; the female rostrum continues to grow after the male rostrum stops growing, eventually reaching approximately 20 cm longer. Calves have been observed between January and May and do not appear to stay with the mother for more than a few months. Gestation is thought to be approximately 9-10 months.The species feeds on a variety of shrimp and fish, including carp and catfish. Dolphins are usually encountered on their own or in loose aggregations; they do not form tight, obviously interacting groups.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Vanishing Species - Gee's Golden Langur

An Article by Mohan Pai

Gee’s Golden Langur

(Trachypithecus geei)

The most beautifully coloured langur with golden fur is a highly endangerd primate. Less than 1000 animals survive in the wild.

E. P. Gee, a well-known naturalist was a tea planter of Assam, who spent half a lifetime studying and photographing animals and birds in India. He discovered the Golden Langur in Assam and brought it to the attention of science as a new species of primates. Mr. Gee was also a member of the Indian Wildlife Board and a good friend of late Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Discovery of the Golden Langur

From the book “The Wild Life of India” by E. P. Gee
“ ... A new kind of langur has recently been discovered near the foothills of the very sam region in which the yeti and buru were sought.This new monkey is the golden langur. As it was supposed to have been discovered by me, it was named by the Zoological Survey of India as Presbytis geei or Gee’s Langur.
For a number of years there had been reports of a cream-coloured langur on the east bank of Sankosh river, near Jamduar which is close to the India-Bhutan border. The first news of the existence of this animal came from E. O. Shebbeare in 1907, but no photographic record and no live or dead specimen were obtained for examination.

... From time to time in the late forties and early fifties I had been told about the existence of these cream-coloured langurs near the Sankoshi river. So I decided to visit Jamduar and find out if these monkeys were a new species or not.
I went to Jamduar in November 1953, and was delighted to find two troupes of these golden langurs on the east of the river, close to Bhutan. They were very pale chestnut colour, as it was then winter. I found out later that the colour varies at different seasons of the year: the golden or light chestnut colour of the cold weather pales into creamy-white with the advent of the hot weather in March.
I photographed these exquisitely beautiful langurs both with still and cine cameras, and spent many days watching them. The larger troupe consisted of thirty to forty animals and the smaller one had about fifteen members. A third troupe was seen by my friends while they were fishing downstream.
In January 1955 we had a meeting of our IBWL in Calcutta, and I showed my cine film of these langurs to the members of Government House, Dr. S. L. Vora, then Director of the Zooogical Survey of India, was also present and showed keen interest in my film and my news of this langur. At my request he instructed his Survey Party to visit the area to investigate and collect some specimens.
This Survey Party, headed by H. Khajuria, duly collected six specimens, one of which was subsequently donated at my request to the British Museum. In his official description of this langur as a new species, Khajuria very kindly named if Presbytis geei, which I gratefully (but very humbly) acknowledge !”

Gee's Golden Langur (Trachypithecus geei), or simply the Golden Langur, is an Old World monkey found in a small region of western Assam, India and in the neighboring foothills of the Black Mountains of Bhutan. It is one of the most endangered primate species of India. Long considered sacred by many Himalayan peoples, the Golden Langur was first brought to the attention of science by the naturalist E. P. Gee in the 1950s.The Golden Langur is known for its rich golden to bright creamish hair, a black face and a very long tail measuring up to 50 cm in length. For the most part, the langur is confined to high trees where its long tail serves as a balancer when it leaps across branches. During the rainy season it obtains water from dew and rain drenched leaves. Its diet is herbivorous, consisting of ripe and unripe fruits, mature and young leaves, seeds, buds and flowers.The region of its distribution is very small, limited to the area bounded on the south by the Brahmaputra river, on the east by the Manas river, on the west by the Sankosh river, all in Assam, India, and on the north by the Black Mountains of Bhutan. These biogeographical barriers are believed to have led to the radiation of species from closely related capped langurs (Trachypithecus pileatus). It generally lives in troops of about 8 (but sometimes up to 50) with several females to each adult male. The Golden Langur is currently endangered, the total Indian population in 2001 was recorded to be 1,064 individuals, with the relative dearth of infants and juveniles indicating a declining population and with the habitat being degraded by human activity. A fragmented but protected population in a rubber plantation in Nayakgaon, Kokrajhar district of Assam increased in population from 38 individuals in 1997 to 52 in 2002. The population has also adapted to feeding on dry rubber seeds.

A complex political situation led to a major deforestation. Political agitation in western Assam began in the late 1980s by Bodo tribal groups frustrated by the changing emigration of non-Bodo peoples into Assam, creating a minority of the indigenous Bodo tribal people. Two militant groups sprung up as an answer to the situation and began an armed struggle for Bodo autonomy from the Indian government. These groups had somewhat similar but competing aims basing their armed struggle from within the forests of western Assam and Bhutan. These were two of over 15 militant groups that emerged in Assam, creating a chaotic atmosphere with resulting deforestation and ethnic violence.

The Isolated and Fragmented Southern Populations of the Golden Langur
Its range once extended throughout the 11722 sq km area of evergreen,dipterocarp, riverine and moist deciduous forests of western Assam and Bhutanbordered by the rivers Sankosh in the west, Manas in the east and Brahmaputra in thesouth. These rivers along with the Black Mountains of the lower Himalaya in Bhutan inthe north formed the ecological barriers to the further dispersal of the species.
Recent studies indicate that their distribution has reduced significantly and theirpopulation now consists of very small groups with a higher proportion of adultsand very few juveniles and infants. Today about 250 Goldenlangurs survive in Chakrashila.

The other small populations remain fragmented and isolated. For instance, about40 survive in the rubber plantation at Nayekgao and 80-100 in Kakoijana Reserve Forest near Bongaigaon. Quite a good number of langurs, singly, in twos or invery small groups have taken shelter in village woodlands comprising of bamboobrakes and some trees. These langurs are slowly vanishing through poaching orare being killed by domestic dogs while crossing clearings. These strandedlangurs have also developed orchard raiding habit thus inviting trouble fromvillagers. Food shortage is apparent in areas such as Nayekgaon rubberplantation where the langurs have started feeding on rubber seeds.

Pic by Arunchs

Golden Langur Conservation Project

The forests of the Manas Biosphere Reserve in western Assam, India have been threatened by illegal logging since the early 1990s. In the last 10 years approximately one third to one half of the three Reserve Forests, Ripu, Chirrang, and Manas, encompassing 350,000 acres, have been deforested. These Reserve Forests and the Royal Manas Sanctuary of Bhutan that borders to the north are the main range of the golden langur ( Trachypithecus geei ) , a leaf-eating primate species occurring only in Assam and Bhutan. In Assam, the species also inhabits a number of "island" fragments south of the main range such as the Kakoijana Reserve Forest (RF), Chakrashila Wildlife Sanctuary (WS) and Nadangiri Reserve Forest.

In 1997, Community Conservation initiated a project to protect the golden langur and the Manas Biosphere Reserve working in conjunction with the Indo-U.S. Primate Project that ended in 2001. Community Conservation now works with a recently formed Forum of five Assamese NGOs. The Manas Biosphere Conservation Forum is composed of Aaranyak of Guwahati, Green Forest Conservation of Kachugaon, Green Heart Nature Club of Kokrajhar, Natures Foster of Bongaigaon and New Horizons of Koila Moila. Together these NGOs cover most of the Assam range of the golden langur. Aaranyak served as the in-country coordinating NGO through 2006 and that role has recently been taken over by Natures Foster as Aaranyak concentrates on its other projects. Each of the organizations focuses on sections of the golden langur range and on specific aspects of work, while all working with the villages within their focal areas.

References: “The Wild Life of India” by E. P. Gee, Wikipedia, A Field Guide to Indian Mammals by Vivek Menon, India Conservation Projects (Northeast India)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The White Tiger

An Article by Mohan Pai
The White Tiger

Pic by Mohan Pai

White Tigers continue to bring thousands of fascinated visitors to zoos across the world. But wildlife biologists are against breeding white tigers because they have no conservation value and feel that freaks should not be allowed.

White tigers are not albinos as thought once, though there are records of albinos among tigers. In 1922, two were shot in Cooch Behar and the pink eyes confirmed them as true albinos. In the white tigers, the black stripes are clearly visible and the eyes are blue, unlike in an albino. When a male and female tiger carrying mutant recessive gene mate, then white cubs are born. This is how two normal coloured orange tigers could bring forth a white offspring.It was through the royal family of Rewa (MP) that white tigers received notice at the national and international level. In 1951, while on a shoot, the royal party saw a tigress with four cubs, one of whom was white. The mother was shot and the white cub, a male, trapped. He was named Mohan and housed in Govindgarh, an unused guest house near Rewa. When Mohan grew up into an adult, he mated with a normal tigeress and produced three litters, all of normal (orange) colouring. A few years later, Mohan mated with one of these cubs and four white cubs were born and they in turn began multiplying. This was the beginning of the breeding of white tigers.From the Rewa white tigers fifty-eight litters were raised, out of which 114 cubs were white and fifty-six of normal colour. Mohan, the sire of all these litters, died in 1970 at the age of twenty and lies buried at Govingarh. The lineage of most of the white tigers in the various zoos in India and across the world, can be traced to Mohan.

Currently, several hundred white tigers are in captivity worldwide with about 100 of them in India, and their numbers are on the increase. The modern population includes both pure Bengals and hybrid Bengal–Siberians, but it is unclear whether the recessive gene for white came only from Bengals, or from any of the Siberian ancestors as well.The unusual coloration of white tigers has made them popular in zoos and entertainment that showcases exotic animals. The magicians Siegfried & Roy are famous for having bred and trained white tigers for their performances, referring to them as "royal white tigers" perhaps from the white tiger's association with the Maharaja of Rewa.

White Tigers In The Wild

An article appeared in the Miscellaneous Notes of the Journal Of The Bombay Natural History Society on Nov. 15, 1909 which reported that a white tigress was shot in the Mulin Sub-Division Forest of the Dhenkanal State in Orissa. The report originally appeared in the Indian Forester in May 1909, and was made by Mr. Bavis Singh, Forest Officer. The ground colour of the white tigress was described as pure white and the stripes as deep reddish black. It was shot over a buffalo kill and "was in good condition not showing any signs of disease." Col. F.T. Pollock wrote in Wild Sports of Burma and Assam, "Occasionally white tigers are met with. I saw a magnificent skin of one at Edwin Wards in Wimpole Street, and Mr. Shadwall, Assistant Commissioner in Cossyah and Jynteah hills, also has two skins quite white." Mr. Lydekker wrote in Game Animals of India (1907) about five more white tiger skins: "A white tiger was exhibited alive at Exeter Change about 1820; a second was killed in Poona about 1892; in March 1899 a white tiger was shot in Upper Assam and the skin sent to Calcutta, where a fourth specimen was received about the same time. The Maharaja of Kuch-Behar also possesses a white tiger-skin." (The white tiger exhibited at Exeter Change in London in 1820 was the first white tiger in Europe.)S.H. Prater wrote in The book of Indian Animals (1948) that "White or partially white tigers are not uncommon in some of the dry open jungles of central India." It is a myth that white tigers did not thrive in the wild. India planned to reintroduce captive-bred white tigers to the wild to a special reserve near Rewa. In the wild white tigers reproduced and bred white for generations. A.A. Dunbar wrote in Wild Animals Of Central India (1923) that "White tigers occasionally occur. There is a regular breed of these animals in the neighborhood of Amarkantak at the junction of the Rewa state and the Mandla and Bilaspur districts. When I was last in Mandla in 1919, a white tigress and two three parts grown white cubs existed. In 1915 a male was trapped by the Rewa state and confined. There is ample evidence that white tigers survived as adults in the wild. Jim Corbett filmed a white tigress in the wild which had two orange cubs. This film footage was used in the 1984 National Geographic movie Man Eaters Of India, which is based on Jim Corbett's 1957 book by the same title. This is further proof that white tigers survived and reproduced in the wild. The website of the Bandhavgarh National Park, in the former princely state of Rewa, in Madhya Pradesh, features pictures of white tigers, and states "The forests of Bandhavgarh are the white tiger jungles of yesteryears." Today there are 46 to 52 orange tigers living in Bandhavgarh, the largest population of tigers in any national park in India.

White Tigers - A Big Attraction

The first white tiger to leave India was Mohini, sired by Mohan Of Rewa.Mohini was bought by the German-American billionaire John Kluge for $10,000, for the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, as a gift to the children of America, in 1960. White tigers began receiving world-wide attention. A few years later, Dalip, a white tiger from Delhi zoo was exhibited at the Expo-70 at Osaka and later at Budapest. At both the exhibitions, he was a major draw. In India quite a few zoos began breeding white tigers and of these, the zoo at Delhi has been the most successful.

The story of white tigers took a dramatic turn in 1980. At Nandankanan Zoological Park in Orissa, a pair of normal coloured tigers gave birth to a litter of three white cubs, a textbook example of the recessive mutant gene. This pair at Nandankanan went to produce more white cubs.

Mutant should not be bred

In the 1980s, wildlife biologists were making great strides in research and they did not approve of breeding white tigers. There argument was simple - a mutant should not be bred. Their stand was vindicated data from all the zoos breeding white tigers. It was clear, they argued, that white tigers are not as healthy as their normal coloured counterpart and they are prone to diseases as their immunological system is weak. They need double doses of vaccine and often have congenital defects. Moreover, competition among the zoos to breed white tigers resulted in much inbreeding and the future generations of white tigers would be even more problem ridden.
In fact the recent trend in the zoological parks of the United States, where there are fifty white tigers, is to phase them out.
Ullas Karanth, wildlife biologist at Mysore, also takes a dim view of the proceedings. He says that white tigers have no conservation value and that freaks should not be allowed to multiply. If this viewpoint is taken seriously the white tiger era may come to an end in a few decades.

Pic by Mohan Pai

References:The Dance of the Saurus (Chapter 31) by Theodore Baskaran, Wikipedia.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Vanishing Species - Slow Loris

An Article by Mohan Pai


Nycticebus Bengalensis

A favourite animal of the pet trade, in Japan, a slow loris will cost you between $1,500 and $4,500

The Slow Loris is a mysterious creature that moves slowly though skillfully through the forest at night. These beautiful animals are marked with large eyes and bold stripes. Solitary creatures, Slow Lorises are active mainly at night. They forage for tender shoots and fruit, eating insects and bird eggs as well. Some are thought to eat small vertebrate animals. Territorial marking is achieved with urine scenting. However, it is not uncommon for the territories of males to overlap those of females. If a Slow Loris feels threatened, it releases a foul smelling musk that can become toxic when this secretion is combined with the saliva of the primate. In the daytime, Slow Lorises sleep curled up with their heads tucked into their legs. While eating, Slow Lorises use their hands and often hang from branches with their legs so they can hold their food. They are adept climbers, well adapted to arboreal life. Slow Lorises use a grooming claw on their first toes to keep their fur in order. They also use their tongues and mouths to groom themselves.

Most Slow Lorises weigh about three pounds (one and a half kilograms). They are usually between 10.5 and 15 inches (25 to 40 centimeters) long and their bodies have plump appearances. Slow Lorises have very large eyes circled by dark rings. White lines are seen between the Slow Loris's eyes. Their bodies are predominantly white or very light gray in color. A darker stripe, usually of brown or reddish brown, runs down the back from the crown. The muzzles of Slow Lorises are relatively short and round. They have opposable thumbs. The tail is a mere stump.
By the time they are between 9 and 18 months old, most Slow Lorises are sexually mature. It is normal for them to reproduce about once every year to year and a half. The average litter contains one or two infants, and the gestation period lasts about 191 days. The baby Slow Lorises cling to the underside of their mother at birth. They are light gray in color and have lighter limbs and hands. While the mother Slow Loris forages for food, her infants cling to a branch or are placed in a nest. It is thought that the father or older siblings may aid in the rearing of infants. By the time they are about 11 weeks old, the infant will begin to acquire the darker coloration of an adult. Though young Slow Lorises are capable of consuming solid food when they are ten days old, they normally continue to nurse for three to six months after birth. Their life-expectancy is up to 14 years.

There are three species of slow loris and are classified as the genus Nycticebus. These slow moving primates range from Borneo and the southern Philippines in Southeast Asia, through India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Southern China (Yunnan area) and Thailand.Like all lorises, slow lorises are nocturnal and arboreal animals that prefer the tops of the trees. Also, they have slow, deliberate movements and a powerful grasp that makes them very difficult to remove from branches. They live as solitaries or in small family groups, and mark their territory with urine.Slow lorises can produce a toxin which they mix with their saliva and use as protection against enemies. Mothers will lick this toxin onto their offspring before leaving them to search for food. The toxin is produced by glands on the insides of their elbows. The lorises lick or suck it into their mouths and deliver it when they bite. The toxin is not known to be fatal to man, but causes a painful swelling.Slow lorises are opportunistic carnivores, typically eating insects, bird eggs and small vertebrates. With their slow quiet movements, they creep to their prey, in order to catch it with a lightning-quick snatch. They also eat fruits, but rarely.

In India, the Slow loris inhabits all the northeast states, with the northwestern limit of its range being the southward bend of Brahmaputra river. Their preferred habitats are tropical and subtropical evergreen and semi-evergreen rainforests with continuous dense canopies. They also prefer forest edges, which have a higher density of insect prey. The numbers are very small and the limited survey conducted by the Indo-US primate project (1999) indicated their presence in few isolated pockets only.

The scale of the threat is also unclear. Population estimates are often based on small surveys, and the official Red List of Threatened Species notes a lack of data from many areas, although a more recent specialist workshop categorised all five species as either Endangered or Vulnerable to extinction. Nobody knows the scale of the international loris trade either. Between 1998 and 2006, Japanese authorities seized 363 animals, while Thai, Indonesian and Singaporean officials uncovered 358 specimens bound for Japan.

References: Wikipedia

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Vanishing Species - The Gharial

An Article by Mohan Pai

The Gharial
Gavialis gangeticus
The Monarch of the Indian Rivers

Gharials float dead by the dozen in Chambal

Todays Indian Express, Bangalore edition (Feb. 20, 2008) has carried a report about the death of 90 Gharials only in the period last two months in the National Chambal Sanctuary, situated around the Chambal river and shared among the three states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Reasons for their sudden death are yet to be established as The Chambal river is said to be the cleanest Indian river, but preliminary results point to high levels of heavy metals(lead and cadmium) in the blood leading to a reduction in body’s ability to fight bacteria, exposing them to infections.
The Gharial is listed in the Critically Endangered (CR) category of the IUCN Red Data Book. According to IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources). The mature Gharial population in India stands at less than 200 reptiles. There is a clear decline of 58% as the same figure a decade ago was 436. Gharial Rehabilitation Project was started in 1975 with some hope for the survival of the Gharial but now with such a radical decline, it’s doubtful if the Gharial could be saved.
However, State officials say that the IUCN figure may be representing the Gharials in their natural habitat only. The estimated population of gharial is placed at 1,976. Lucknow’s Kukrail Gharial rehabilitation Centre (KGRC) is famous for the captive breeding of alligators. The only silver-lining is that the Gharial responds well to captive breeding so there is some hope.

Gharial belongs to the reptilian order of Crocodilia. The long, slender jaws, bulging eyes, and sleek olive-green trunk, distinguish the riverine gharial from the other two Indian species. The adult male has a hump at the end of the snout, resembling an earthen pot or ghara; hence the name Gharial. Gharials are often confused with muggars. Specimens over 7 m long existed but no very large specimen remain due to heavy hunting. In fact the gharial is one of the most seriously endangered Indian animals.

Formerly abundant in the major river systems of Nepal, India and Pakistan, the present remnant groups are mostly confined to a few isolated areas on the Ganga, Mahanadi and Brahmaputra rivers with Chambal Valley having the largest population.
One reason for the failure of the gharial to survive is its specialized habit requirements. Gharials inhabit deep pools (where fish are plentiful) in big rivers, using sandbanks for basking and nesting.
Gharials are almost exclisively fish-eaters and the narrow jawa are efficient far catching and swallowing fish. The swodlike jaws are jerked sideways to snap up a passing fish, which is then swallowed by several backward jerks of the head. Their fish-eating habits and timid nature render them harmless to man though it is said that breeding females will charge and bite intruders near the nest.
Gharials are social and live in groups usually made up of a single dominant male, several females and several sub-adults. As with other crocodilians, the young live apart after a one or two months nursery period. 40-80 eggs are usually laid, in nest-holes on river banks. Gharials may fail to breed where there is escessive disturbance.
The Government of India has, with aid from FAO/UNDP, initiated a long-term programme to save the three Indian crocodilians from the imminent threat of extinction. Artificial incubation of wild eggs (which raises normally low survival chances) and captive breeding has been the basis of this programme. Eight states are involved and sanctuaries and national parks have been constituted, the most extensive being 2500 km2 Chambal River National Gharial Sanctuary which involves U.P., M.P. And Rajasthan. Hundreds of captive-reared gharial, mugger and salt-water crocodiles have been released.

References: R. E. Hawkins - Encyclopedia of Indian Natural History, Wikipedia and Delhi Green

Vanishing Species - The Indian Vultures

An Article by Mohan Pai
The Indian Vultures
‘God’s own incinerators’
- Dr. Salim Ali

Indian white-rumped vulture G. Bengalensis

The Vultures are not gathering any more!

They are about to become extinct!

The White backed vulture population was estimated at 30 million birds in 1992. Today, it is a mere 11,000 birds and falling.

Diclofenac poisoning

The Indian Vulture, Gyps indicus and the Indian White-rumped Vulture, G. bengalensis species have been almost wiped out (a decline of 99%–97% in population in Pakistan & India) and the cause of this has been identified as poisoning caused by the veterinary drug diclofenac. Diclofenac is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) and when given to working animals it can reduce joint pain and so keep them working for longer. The drug is believed to be swallowed by vultures with the flesh of dead cattle which were given diclofenac in the last days of life. Diclofenac causes kidney failure in several species of Vultures. In March 2005 the Indian Government announced its support for a ban on the veterinary use of diclofenac. Another NSAID, meloxicam, has been found to be harmless to vultures and should prove to be an acceptable substitute for diclofenac. In March 2006 diclofenac was still being used for animals throughout India and the changes in Indian legislation are awaited. When meloxicam production is increased it is hoped that it will be as cheap as diclofenac.

The drug is now proven to have been responsible for the near-total collapse of three species of vulture in south Asia – White-rumped Gyps bengalensis, Indian G. indicus and Slender-billed G. tenuirostris. The species are already locally extinct in several parts of the region, but were formerly among the commonest large birds of prey in the world. Without further concerted conservation efforts, we could soon be witnessing one of the most dramatic bird extinctions since the previously abundant Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius was lost at the beginning of the twentieth century.

A virus was the initial suspect for the disappearance of South Asia's griffon vultures.Then, in 2004, US scientists working in Pakistan - which, unlike India, allowed vulture tissue to be taken out of the country for analysis - discovered that the birds were being poisoned by feeding on the carcasses of cattle that had been treated with the painkiller diclofenac. The drug, commonly used to treat sick cattle, proved to be highly toxic to vultures' kidneys. Cheap imports: Cheap veterinary diclofenac is imported from China, and the human formulation is also used to treat cattle.

Declining vulture numbers have triggered serious public health problems. Rotting carrion lies around for days in towns and villages across India, and is believed to be spreading communicable infections like tuberculosis, anthrax and foot-and-mouth disease. There has definitely been an "exponential" rise in the number of stray dogs that feed on rotting flesh and spread rabies, experts add. Their concern is high because more than 20,000 Indians die of rabies each year, the highest rate in the world. Carrion-eating dogs can become a major human problem. In Bikaner, Rajasthan, for instance, over 1,000 vicious dogs inhabited a large carrion dumping ground. This poses a serious threat to the local population, many of whom they regularly attack.

A few vultures can efficiently dispose of a cow carcass within minutes, a fact that is important to the followers of the Zoroastrian religion. India's small Parsee community in Mumbai and Kolkata have been adversely affected by the declining vulture population because, until a decade ago, the birds would scavenge their dead in the secluded 'Towers of Silence' in the heart of the city, in keeping with ancient Zoroastrian tradition. The Parsees cannot cremate, bury or submerge their dead in water because they consider a corpse impure, and their Zoroastrian faith does not permit them to defile the elements with it. British expertise in breeding vultures in captivity for the Parsees has been called off, following differences within the orthodox community that had erected solar reflectors to hasten the decomposition of human bodies given the 'lack' of vultures.

Pic - Courtsey, Nature Club Surat

The most efficient scavengers in the world are crashing out of the sky to their extinction.

The staggering decline in the number of Indian vultures due to continued use of drugs in livestock means that the bird could be extinct within a decade.

Bombay Natural History Society’s study across India, Pakistan and Nepal showed that overall numbers of Asian vultures are declining by 50 per cent a year, the fastest decline ever in a bird species.

The White backed vulture has collapsed from about 30 million birds in the early 90s to about 11,000 birds today.The Slender-billed and Long-billed vultures are both down about 97 per cent over the same period.

A single dead cow that has diclofenac in its system is enough to wipe out an entire flock.The vanishing vultures would leave the way open for scavengers such as feral dogs and rats creating dangerous health problems for humans.

Conservation measures

The Indian government has now passed a bill banning the manufacture of the veterinary drug diclofenac that has caused the rapid population decline across the Indian Subcontinent; their aim was to phase out its use by late 2005, although it was still in widespread use in 2007 and is likely to remain so for several years. Similar laws banning import and manufacture of diclofenac are now in place in Nepal and Pakistan. Efforts to replace diclofenac with a suitable alternative are ongoing; drug companies have now developed meloxicam, an alternative to diclofenac. The Report of the International South Asian Vulture Recovery Plan Workshop in 2004 gave a comprehensive list of recommendations including establishing a minimum of three captive breeding centres each capable of holding 25 pairs. Captive breeding efforts are ongoing and met with success when two White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis chicks hatched in early 2007 at a breeding centre in Pinjore, Haryana; similar successes are hoped for in Long-billed Vulture. The centre is part of a captive breeding programme established by the RSPB and Bombay Natural History Society. NGOs like Nature Club Surat have also launched Vulture Conservation programmes.

In India there are eight species of vultures, the commonest being the Indian Scavenger which is found practically all over the country. All species prey on mammals for food.However, over the years, a number of species like the Indian King, Long-Billed Griffon, India Fulvous, Asian White-rumped and the Himalayan Griffon, which inhabited the Himalayas but were also seen around north India, have become a rare sight these days. Many have simply vanished and may only be found in high mountain ranges.

Pic - Courtsey, Nature Club Surat

Different species of Indian vultures in Salim Ali's The Book of Indian Birds:
White-backed Vulture [Gyps bengalensis]. The most common of all vultures found in cities near dumps and slaughter houses. This is one of the endangered species.

Indian King Vulture [Gyps calvus]: Black vulture with scarlet neck. It's popultion is dwindling sharply in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Cinereous vulture [Aegypius monachus]: Big blackish brown vulture with pinkish neck. A tree nesting variety. Spotted in Assam, Himalayas, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kerala. Gradually becoming rare.

Indian Long-billed Griffon [Gyps indicus]: A common Himalayan vulture covered with brownish hair life feathers. It's sightings have reduced considerably in Gwalior, Pachmarhi, Delhi, Agra, Bareilly, Jodhpur and several areas in north-east India.

Indian Griffon [Gyps fulvus] Massive brown vulture with head covered with whitish-yellow hair. A common sight in cities but now gradually disappearing.

White Indian Scavenger [Neophron percnopterus]: This is a rare vulture. White in clolour and somewhat like a kite. Usually found in drier areas of India. It's polulation has decreased alarmingly in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.

References: Wikipedia, Rahul Bedi, New Scientist, BirdLife International.