18 adult vultures take flight
As part of a conservation breeding program by the Bombay Natural History Society, 18 adult vultures took flight
For Vibhu Prakash, vultures are beautiful birds despite their horrible eating habits. “The long-billed vulture, for example, looks like a swan,” he says.
He’s spent four decades working to protect these avian scavengers, so maybe that’s a earned appreciation.
Prakash studied vultures in Keoladeo National Park, Rajasthan, in the late 1980s, research that turned out to be providential. When cattle died in large numbers in early summer, hundreds of two species of vultures descended from the sky. “It was an unforgettable sight,” says the researcher.
In carnivorous mammals, overbearing individuals feed first while the gentle wait their turn. Vultures, however, let the hungry pass. They work quickly to clean up carcasses, nature’s own disposal system.
Unable to fly away after these feasts, the engorged scavengers perch on the trees, digesting their meals. One of those huge trees, beloved by vultures, stood outside a building that Prakash and other researchers frequented. When they walked under, the panicked birds vomited to lighten their weight and fly away. Their habits can be revolting, but they clean every feather and bathe daily.
Upon returning to the park in 1996, the researcher discovered that the vulture population had collapsed. Dead birds were lying everywhere, tangled in the trees, on the ground and in the nest. Those who were still alive sat listlessly with their serpent necks hanging down before toppling, lifeless. “It was a very disturbing sight,” Prakash recalls.
What is the cause ?
Comparing that year’s population estimate with his previous study, he showed the decline was catastrophic 95% in a decade. Numbers of vultures have plummeted not only in the park but across the country as researchers struggled to find the cause. Was it pesticides, heavy metal poisoning, or an infectious disease? It wasn’t until 2003 that an international team of scientists identified the culprit, a new anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac used to treat cattle suffering from various diseases. When these sick animals died, the vultures stuffed themselves with their contaminated flesh and developed gout, a disease caused by an inability to excrete uric acid due to kidney failure. The sick birds slowly lost their strength and succumbed within a fortnight.
While campaigning for a ban on the drug’s veterinary use, the Bombay Natural History Society also set up a conservation breeding program led by Prakash to increase the number of vultures. The team collected the first eggs of the season from captive vultures and incubated them artificially. The poor parents laid another egg and took turns sitting on it in seven to eight hour shifts.
“When they get stiff, they get up and do vigorous wing and leg exercises,” Prakash explains.
The 10 day old chicks hatched in the incubator were exchanged for the second egg. As a rule, parent birds would help their young to hatch by gently removing the eggshell. The miraculous appearance of the balls of down made them jump, and they carefully stretched out their long necks to feel them with their beaks. Once convinced the new occupants were chicks, the adults were quick to raise them.
Since vultures raise only one chick per year, returning the second chick to the parents posed a risk to its survival. Instead, Prakash and his team raised these youngsters together at the center. In three to four months, the young weighing 150 grams grow into birds weighing five kilograms.
“The chicks are so cute,” says the researcher. “Slender-billed vulture chicks, for example, are fluffy and snow-white with a black neck and bald head. “
Prakash discovered their fixation on the color red.
“If the keeper is wearing red, the chicks will go,” he says. “When you put red napkins, they get on them and it’s hard to take them off.”
This goes without saying, since red is the color of blood and meat.
As part of this program, 18 adult vultures took flight to fulfill their destiny as keepers of hygiene in the countryside. Many more will follow.
Janaki Lenin is not an environmentalist, but many creatures share her home for reasons she has not yet discovered.