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White-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis)

Mohamed bin Zayed Species project number 170516947

Protecting Critically Endangered Vultures from the Risk of Electrocution Mortality in Doon Valley, Uttarakhand, India

Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation (Project No. 170516947) - White-backed vulture - Awarded $5,000 on January 26, 2018

Project Team: Prof. B.C Choudhury (Advisor), Khima Nand Balodi (Team Leader), Bhawna Pandey, Sunny Joshi, Himani Singh Khati, Mahesh Chandra, Ina Bahuguna, Anshul Bhatt


The drastic decline in vulture populations during the last three decades in the Indian sub-continent is a well-known fact. The use of diclofenac in livestock medicines have been attributed as the single most contributing factor for decline of vultures who feed on such diclofenac ridden carcasses of livestock. In our previous studies we have found that the use of diclofenac (human use diclofenac) and other harmful Non-Steroidal Anti Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) is continued in veterinary treatment and risk of their poisoning to vultures is still prevalent. However, the risk of electrocution mortality to vultures was found a major threat, as a result of unorganized livestock carcass dumping in the close proximity of high tension power lines in Uttarakhand lowlands. The state of Uttarakhand provide habitat to all nine species of vultures found in the Indian sub-continent and in our previous studies during the years 2014 to 2017, we recorded only six species except the Slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris), Indian vulture (Gyps indicus) and Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) in Doon valley. These studies have also recorded scattered populations of two critically endangered vulture namely White-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis) and Red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus) in the valley.


Livestock Carcass Disposal System and Threats to Vultures

The livestock carcass disposal practices are carried out by skinner and bone collector community in the valley and livestock carcasses taken from households in villages and towns are dumped in various carcass dumping sites. Interestingly, most of these dumping sites are over or along the river or stream beds, and most often closer to high power transmission lines. These dumping sites are preferred as feeding sites by vultures and other raptors, and the towers or pylons of power transmission lines are used as roosting and perching sites. Unfortunately, at the time of roosting and feeding in these sites, many of the migratory vultures and other raptors such as Steppe eagles end their life as a result of electrocution. During the years 2014-2017, we recorded 179 electrocuted (mostly Gyps himalayensis) dead raptors in some of such unsafe dumping sites. Most importantly, the two critically endangered vultures were also recorded feeding in these unsafe sites during our studies and fortunately, no mortality of these birds was observed. However, these birds were also vulnerable to risk of electrocution mortality.


Our previous conservation initiatives

A number of conservation actions were initiated through financial supports received from the Oriental Bird Club (OBC), Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP), Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), like shifting unsafe dumping sites to a safer location, awareness education, advocacy with various stakeholders and understanding the use of vulture toxic drugs in the Terai region of the state including in Doon Valley. The shifting of unsafe dumping sites to safer location resulted in to zero mortality of vulture in one such site. However, re-use of unsafe sites again and again by skinners prompted vulture populations susceptible to electrocution mortality.


Conservation actions undertaken under the current project

Shifting of unsafe carcass dumping sites

The present project was focused on identification of new and potential livestock carcass dumping sites, safe for feeding of vultures in the valley to ensure zero mortality of critically endangered vultures. With the financial support received from the MBZ species conservation fund and from the Rufford foundation, a number of actions to protect threatened vulture were taken. Seven unsafe carcass dumping sites in Doon valley and Haridwar were shifted to newly identify safer locations with the help of skinners. The monitoring of vulture population in these safe and unsafe sites reflect that a total of seven Himalayan vultures were found dead due to electrocution in Doon valley during the winter migratory season from December 2017 to April 2018. However, after necessary actions, no mortality was recorded till the survey period March 2019. We also recorded six dead Himalayan vultures (three in 2018 and three up to March 2019) and two dead steppe eagles in safe dumping sites in Doon valley; however, the cause of mortality was not ascertained. Overall, the conservation actions under the present project resulted in reduction of electrocution mortality of vultures up to 90% (85% to 100% in various sites) in Doon valley. It was also observed that the newly shifted safe sites were visited by more vultures than the unsafe ones.


New records of critically endangered vultures

Our population surveys in Doon valley and Terai region of Uttarakhand state have recorded only two critically endangered vultures, white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis) and red headed vultures (Sacrogyps calvus), in different carcass dumping sites during previous surveys from 2015 to 2017. However, the surveys undertaken during 2018 and 2019, with support from the MBZ species conservation fund and other grants, had recorded all four critically endangered vultures in Uttarakhand. The Indian vulture (Gyps indicus) and slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostis) were recorded only during the present studies. Moreover, the near threatened (NT) bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), a high altitude resident species, was also recorded below the 1000 m asl nearby a carcass dumping site in Doon valley. The present study also revealed that the population of white-backed vulture is on rise in the state (as recorded more number of individuals with sub-adults and juveniles than earlier surveys), that is definitely good news for the vulture conservationists and the wildlife managers.


Market availability and use of vulture toxic veterinary drugs

The surveys conducted to understand the market availability and use of vulture toxic veterinary drugs in low land districts of the state revealed that the use of diclofenac has been reduced while availability and use of vulture safe meloxicam is on rise. The availability of other vulture toxic NSAIDs like acelofenac, flunixin, ketoprofen and nimesulide was observed slightly higher in comparison with our surveys in 2016-17. However, availability of vulture safe meloxicam with about 63% of the surveyed pharmacies is a good indication and it seems to be replacing the diclofenac and being used as a leading alternative.


Awareness education, advocacy and trans-boundary collaboration

Besides the comprehensive awareness education and outreach activities with more than 20 events in schools, colleges, villages and with frontline forest staff, a workshop to discuss the trans-boundary vulture conservation issues and develop trans-boundary collaboration between India and Nepal was organized on 22 April, 2019 (on the occasion of Earth Day event). This workshop was attended by more than 120 participants (officers, scientists and young researchers), from the four key organizations of Nepal (the Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation, Bird Conservation Nepal, National Trust for Nature Conservation and Nature Guide Association Suklaphanta) and many key governmental and non-governmental organizations of India, representatives from community based organization such as farmer groups, Biodiversity Management Committees and skinners associations have participated in this workshop. The workshop has been the first of its kind in Uttarakhand state on vulture conservation issues and would be important in developing Trans-boundary collaboration for vulture conservation actions in near future. In the success of this project, the role of local communities like skinner associations, traditional skinners, Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs), farmers, pharmacists, Vulture Mitra, teachers and students have been very important.


Future conservation plan

Although, a number of initiatives to conserve the threatened vultures are being undertaken in the lowland region of the state, however, the information on distribution, population status, threats the populations are facing and other issues in the highland region or districts of Uttarakhand state is very limited. Thus, with continued vulture conservation actions in lowland, focus would be on the highland region of the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in all of our vulture conservation initiatives and studies in near future.


I am very thankful to the MBZ species conservation fund to support our vulture conservation initiatives in the Uttarakhand state.

Project documents