A brief return to India
In my new role as an in-house writer for the RSPB's Species Recovery Unit, I returned to India to research the catastrophic crash in vultures, meeting two key figures in the story.
My previous visit to India ended – as luck would have it – on the day Covid arrived there in March 2020. I had been continuing my research into the cultural connections between people and wildlife and as lockdown loomed both in India and here in the UK, I wrote up my “learnings so far” in a slim book titled Leopard Moon Rising.
While the focus of the book is the tribal communities who live harmoniously alongside leopards and lions, I was to discover a wealth of other stories that highlight the special place that nature still has in daily life. I learned that sometimes, that role is hidden from view, until something goes wrong, as has happened in the case of India’s vultures.
I was back in India in April, this time to find out more about the vulture story from the couple who have done more than anyone to save them from extinction, Vibhu and Nikita Prakash. As I mentioned in my last blog the RSPB has asked me to write the stories of some of our longest-standing conservation efforts, the fight to restore our most threatened species. Having tackled some UK birds, including white-tailed eagle, cirl bunting and – still in progress – bittern, it is time to turn my attention to one of the most difficult conservation subjects of our times – the rapid crash towards extinction of four Asian species of vulture.
Vibhu Prakash first documented the apparent crash in vultures in India in 1996, and soon afterwards a similar picture emerged from other countries in south Asia. Severe reductions in the numbers of Gyps vultures (oriental white-backed G. bengalensis, Indian (also known as long-billed) G. indicus and slender-billed G. tenuirostris)[i] and red-headed vulture Sarcogyps calvus started to be recorded, and obviously sick and dying birds encountered. This heralded the fastest recorded population crash of any animal species, amounting to 99.7% of white-backed vultures in ten years, with only slightly lower rates of decline in the other species.
The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) alerted the international conservation community to the urgent need to find the cause, with the UK’s RSPB and Zoological Society of London, the Peregrine Fund in the USA and others responding. Several hypotheses were considered, until eventually post-mortem examinations discovered that the mortality was caused by visceral gout resulting from the toxic effects of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) diclofenac, which had become widely used in veterinary practice, in particular in the care of aging cattle.
A species recovery programme of unprecedented scale and complexity was instigated, across five[ii] countries and involving advocacy for a ban on the veterinary use of diclofenac and other vulture-toxic NSAIDs; pharmaceutical research into safe alternatives and continued safety testing of new drugs; establishment of toxin-free vulture safe zones; captive breeding and release into safe zones.
In 2001 Vibhu and his wife Nikita, who had been working as a research assistant on red-headed vultures, moved to Pinjore, Haryana, where the state Forest Department had agreed to help set up the first of several captive breeding centres. I travelled there to meet them, shortly after Vibhu had, like me, supposedly retired; Nikita continues to run the centre along with more than a dozen locally-based workers. It was a pleasure to meet them and to add vital details to this fascinating if tragic story. Thanks to them, vultures have been saved from extinction, so far at least.
When the story is written up, I’ll post an abridged version on this blog.
[i] The Himalayan and Eurasian griffon vultures (G. himalayensis and G. fulvus) appear less vulnerable due to their restricted distributions (in mountains and as an uncommon winter visitor to the region respectively).
[ii] India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Cambodia, with wider advocacy and other work in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Myanmar