Now, railway tracks turns abattoir for endangered vulture
A painkiller called diclofenac, poisoning of animal carcasses and electrocution have for long killed vultures in India. Assam has a new slayer of these endangered scavengers – railway tracks.
According to the Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre (VCBC) at Rani near Guwahati, the railway tracks have become deathtraps for vultures that feed on carcasses of elephants and livestock hit by trains.
“Twice since 2014, I have seen trains run over 50 vultures cleaning up carcasses on the tracks,” Jiten Kalita, a villager in the Bhagabotipara area, says. But neither the Northeast Frontier Railway nor the Assam Forest Department has taken this seriously. The onus, conservationists say, is more on the railway authorities to save the Schedule 1 birds by removing the decomposing carcasses from the tracks.
Along with poisoning and electrocution, train-hits have claimed more than 400 vultures of the Himalayan griffon species from 2007 to June 2014, records with the VCBC say. Poisoning killed 193 more between January 22 and March 15 this year. Earlier in 2001, 60 birds died in Rongjuli area of Goalpara district and 23 in Nalbari due to poisoning.
VCBC nurtured 30 poisoned vultures back to health and released them in the wild in 2007. This raised hopes for the much-misunderstood bird that has lost 99 per cent of its population in India partly because of its slow breeding. Of the few remaining vultures, says a senior member of National Board for Wildlife, 40 per cent are dying every year.
There are nine types of vultures in India, three – white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed – belonging to the Gyps species. The others are bearded vulture, Egyptian vulture, Himalayan griffon, Eurasian griffon, red-headed vulture and cinereous vulture.
Experts say a world without vultures will struggle to dispose of carcasses, causing health hazards. India is already feeling the heat with at least 5.5 million feral dogs taking the space of the vanishing vultures, a study by Anil Markandya of the UK-based University of Bath says.
The feral dogs multiplied between 1992 and 2006 when the vulture population dipped sharply. The National Survey of India later attributed 47,300 dig-bite deaths to the reducing number of vultures.
The save-vulture programme began with a war against veterinary drug diclofenac that dairy farmers prefer to treat ailing cattle. The veterinary formulation of diclofenac was banned in 2006 but farmers switched to the diclofenac prescribed for humans. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare recently banned the large vial of human diclofenac under Drugs and Cosmetics (Sixth Amendment) Rules, 2015. Instead of a multi-dose of 30-100ml, diclofenac will now be available in a single 3ml vial.
The veterinary diclofenac has a safer but costlier substitute called meloxicam. But farmers are unwilling to use it; price is a factor, as it the longer time taken for cattle to respond to meloxicam than diclofenac.
Apart from diclofenac, too strong for vultures feeding on cattle carcasses to survive, people tend to sprinkle pesticides on carcasses of domestic animals usually to deal with carnivores such as jackals and stray dogs. The vultures often end up as ‘bonus kills’.
Ignorant of the vulture’s utility as a sanitation engineer, many people regard it as an ominous creature. Some, like 20-year-old Pallabi Das, are trying to remove misconception about the bird that has powerful eyesight to locate food from afar.
A weaver, Pallabi has made a pair of vultures a motif on the gamosas (towels) she churns out. She uses these gamosas as a tool for creating awareness about the need to save the vultures.
Prajanma, a literary body, has also been trying to sensitise the people on the ecological importance of the vultures.
One of the challenges of protecting the scavengers is that they produce only one chick a year, and it takes more than five years to attain maturity. “A five-year gap between two chicks makes saving the vulture that much tougher,” Sachin P Ranade, manager of both Rani and Kolkata-based VCBCs, says.
On the brighter side, the Ministry of Environment and Forest will declare 30,000 sq km in Assam as vulture protection zone after making this area a totally diclofenac-free zone. The provisional belt covers nine districts of eastern Assam. They are Sivasagar, Jorhat, Golaghat, North Lakhimpur, Dhemaji, Nagaon, Sonitpur, Karbi Anglong, and some parts of Dibrugarh.
Captive-bred vulture chicks will be released in this safe zone.
The VCBC is evaluating three strategies in all the selected districts. It is conducting a survey in pharmacies where the veterinary banned killer drug is sold. Liver samples from cattle carcasses will be tested to ascertain if there are toxic residues in the carcass. Vulture colonies are also being monitored.
Ranade says three more years will be required to declare the area as a safe zone for vultures.
( Kishore Talukdar is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. His areas of interest include Development journalism and Environment journalism. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )