It happened around 1990. Chhattisgarh suddenly noticed vultures – the five species that inhabit these realms out of the ten that call India their home, had started disappearing. Earlier it was common to spot vultures soaring in the skies and it was not unusual to sight large congregations on carcasses across the State.
Vulture habitats in Chhattisgarh
The birds, till about two decades ago, were well spread out across the State. Nesting sites of all five species – the White-rumped vulture (Gyps benalensis), the Indian vulture (Gyps indicus), the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), the Red-headed vulture (Aegypius calvus) and the Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) – were easily identifiable at Raipur, Bilaspur, Bilha, Barnawapara, Achanakmar and several other places. The decline in the vulture population is estimated to be more than 90 per cent in the areas that have been surveyed. Such a drastic fall is one of the steepest that any bird species has experienced in the country.
Cause of decline
Since time immemorial vultures have played an important ecological role as scavengers where they have been relied on to pick livestock and in some cases even human dead, clean. Their declining population has resulted in an increase in the number of feral dogs which in turn poses a range of disease threats. The veterinary use of diclofenac formulation is considered to be the main cause for the decline in vulture populations across the Indian subcontinent. Recognising this and with a mandate to protect the vultures, the Government of India officially banned the veterinary use of diclofenac in May 2006. Despite the ban the deadly medicine is still believed to be widely used in circumspect ways – it is purchased against human prescriptions and then administered to cattle in double dose.
Despite this grim situation, each sighting of the vultures of Chhattisgarh has resulted in exultation and ignited hope in conservationists.
White-rumped vulture: In the last three years about 17 sightings of these birds have been reported from various parts of the State.
Indian vulture: These birds have been sighted in mixed congregations.
Egyptian vulture: Some birds of this species have been sighted.
Red-headed vulture: In the last 4 to 5 years no sightings of these birds have been reported in Chhattisgarh.
Griffon vulture: One sighting is recorded in 1995 at Manendragarh, located on the northern fringes of the State adjacent to Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
Unidentified vultures: The Aonrapani in the Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary used to have a population of 22 birds. These birds nested in the cliffs, but in 2009 very few nests could be located and only 7 or 8 of the vultures were sighted. Although the species count cannot be pegged accurately, the existence of the birds has been established. To further findings, scientific studies need to be conducted – a complicated task further compounded by the inhospitable terrain and Naxal insurgency.
Sightings indicate that the vultures of Chhattisgarh have survived the downward spiral. However, to give vultures a fighting chance to survive, a complete ban on diclofenac needs to be considered and its use in humans needs to be strictly controlled. A care and conservation centre should also be established. The vultures of Chhattisgarh are struggling to survive and they need all the help they can get from us.