ESSAY

We must safeguard the web of life and care about the other living species that we share this planet with. Pygmy tarsiers eat and host bugs that we’ve seen at home — insects, spiders, lizards, bedbugs, lice, fleas, roundworms, and tapeworms. The vaquitas are preyed upon by large sharks and killer whales, keeping them away from us. But only 10 vaquitas are left and in their absence, the diet of sharks and whales may change. A tiger in the wild indicates that the forest it inhabits is healthy and diverse. As of now, there are 3,900 tigers in the wild globally, and more than twice as many (8,000) in captivity. By protecting the web of life, we build a kinder world for everyone.

Vultures, including the White-rumped Vulture, are not loved because they eat dead animals, including humans. But vultures don’t eat live humans, and they don’t kill humans. They only eat them when they’re already dead.

This aspect of vultures makes many of us dislike or fear them. But these very same aspects make other cultures revere them, particularly in Tibet, China, Mongolia, Bhutan, Sikkim, Zanskar, and India.

In Tibet, vultures are considered to be angels who bring souls to heaven where they can be reincarnated. Cultures with Vajrayana Buddhist traditions call them “sky burials”. A group of vultures can consume one human body in 15 minutes, leaving nothing behind but the bones. At the end of the ritual, participants are said to feel a sense of peace and calmness.

These vultures carry their own disinfectant in their bodies. After eating a carcass, harmful bacteria may climb up their legs, so they pee to disinfect their legs and cool down. White-rumped vultures (Pseudogyps bengalensis) are loyal, sociable birds that travel in groups. They go by many names such as the Indian White-rumped Vulture, Indian Vulture, Indian White-backed Vulture, Asian White-backed Vulture, Oriental White-backed Vulture, and Oriental Vulture.

This Vulture is beautiful with its dark feathers with a striking patch of white on its back that can only be seen when they fly. This vulture likes to also outstretch its wings when taking in the sun. It has a pinkish to red hue on its head and neck. Its eyes are dark and its beak is large. It likes to perch on trees, posts, and the ground, sitting with its neck tucked under.

The white-rumped vulture is vocally challenged if you compare it to birds that we hear singing and chirping in the early morning. It will screech when mating, and hiss, grunt, squeal, and croak when fighting. However, when I heard it here, it sounded more like a snare drum.

White-rumped vultures eat dead animals, whether they are fresh or decaying. Sometimes they go through dumpsters for food. At other times they live near slaughterhouses for remains. Or they may eat fish that have dried out. In India, they mainly eat the remains of cattle and humans.

A Once Wide Range

There was a time when the white-rumped vultures were numbered in the millions, along with many other vulture species. They enjoyed free reign over parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, most of the Indian subcontinent, Indochina, the northern Malay Peninsula, and Yunnan in south-central China. Today they are rarely if ever, seen in these countries.

In fact, globally only 14 of the world’s 23 vulture species are alive and threatened with extinction, particularly those in Africa and Asia, where the white-rumped vulture is located.

In India, the decline was extreme. Once they were plentiful and seen by people on a daily basis. But Chirgaon village, India, exemplifies what happened to this vulture. From 1999 to 2000, so many died that only 22 vultures were left.

The white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis) has undergone a “catastrophic decline”, the IUCN said. Over 99% of its population has been wiped out since the 1980s, making it the fastest decline of any bird species in recorded history.

Today their numbers have increased, but their growth has had its ups and downs. From February 2019 to March 2021 their numbers climbed up to 347, and then dropped to 249. The white-rumped vulture has been listed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered since 2000.

Poison

The vultures died from unintentional poisoning by people who since the 1980s used Diclofenac, a medication, to treat sick cows. As the cows died, Vultures ate their Diclofenac-laced carcasses. They died en masse, from kidney failure.

Diclofenac is a powerful anti-inflammatory drug. Prakash Javdekar, former Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, once said in Parliament that “Just 0.4%-0.7% of animal carcasses contaminated with diclofenac was sufficient to decimate 99% of vulture populations.”

The white-rumped vultures were collapsing into trees, grasslands, and garbage dumpsters. Diclofenac filled their blood with uric acid that coated their organs.

Other Threats

The drug Diclofenac was banned for veterinary use in India, Nepal, and Pakistan in 2006, and Bangladesh in 2010. However, there are other threats to the white-rumped vulture such as:

  1. Habitat loss. The destruction of forests, where trees are used to build homes for people and land use is changed to crop production has affected the white-rumped vultures’ normal habitation.

  2. Starvation. With the destruction of habitat, foraging grounds became smaller, in turn lessening their food source with the demise of large ungulate populations.

  3. Collisions with man-made structures

  4. Mad Cow Disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy led to strict hygiene rules by the European Union, including the prohibition of leaving carcasses in the open. This diminished yet another food source of vultures.

  5. Poisoning vultures, whether deliberately or as a side-effect of poisoning mammalian predators and scavengers remains a threat.

City Vultures

These days, in India, some White-rumped Vultures are not likely to be seen in forests. Sometimes they soar over vast landscapes, grasslands, deserts, and even agricultural fields, searching for food.

Oftentimes, they are in the middle of a city, having adapted to living side by side with humans. The White-rumped vulture will look through garbage dumps, or seek out and feast on dead pets and livestock that were not disposed of properly.

Efforts to Grow the White-rumped Vulture Population

A number of organizations are working to grow the number of white-rumped vultures and to maintain existing numbers in India and other countries. These include, among others, The Pinjore Centre, The State Shrivardhan Forest Department of the Konkan region, India, the Mahad-based NGO Society of Eco-Endangered Species Conservation and Protection (Seescap), and the Ela Foundation, to name a few.

The Pinjore center seeks to impart a breeding reserve of vultures for take-off into a Diclofenac-free world. They also work with communities and local students by educating them about how vultures contribute to the wellbeing of their own community.

With knowledge, the communities have been enlisted to help monitor white-rumped vulture populations and to determine whether the population numbers are stable, or if they are decreasing or increasing.

The Peregrine Fund also offers worldwide support of vultures through International Vulture Awareness Day, which is celebrated on the first Saturday of every year.

This is a time when people can look for vultures in their area, or talk to others in one’s family, school, and neighborhood to participate in the festivities and to celebrate this special bird.

Releasing Four Vultures into the Wild

Recently, four white-rumped vultures were released into the wild by the State Shrivardhan Forest Department of the Konkan region, India.

The four vultures were discovered when they were chicks one year ago. They were two males and two females, and they were about 10 months old. They had been abandoned and were malnourished.

Every day, each chick was cared for by the Shrivardhan Forest Department. Each bird required a daily diet of 300 to 400 gm of meat. They also needed very large cages to accommodate a wingspan of 6-7 feet. As a result, the cages of each bird measured 20 square feet.

According to a volunteer, “When the chicks reached an ideal weight of over 10 kg and were in a healthy state, they were tagged and released.” Each tag had a different number for the bird. In this way, they could be monitored, tracked, and observed.

Also, locals who may have seen them could also issue a report to the Forest Department, informing them of the location and tracking number of the vulture that they saw.

The white-rump vultures are native to the Konkan region in India. This is the first time that rescued white-rumped vulture chicks were cared for and then set free in the region.

Ecological Value

White-rumped vultures and all other vulture species can be considered as “Nature’s respectable cleaners and protectors.” This is because when a vulture eats a carcass it tends to leave nothing behind but the bones.

In this way, they take in environmental organic waste which meshes very well in their tummies. Doubtless, this also places a lid on the transmission of disease to other animals and to humans.

White-rumped vultures, and all other vultures, in this way, are our protectors, and what they do is perfectly respectable. They also are very fast cleaners. With 100 vultures, a 100-pound carcass can be fully eaten and cleaned out within three minutes.

The fact that they can do this so quickly is very important, especially when what they are eating is a decaying animal, a true stew of germs and harmful bacteria. The speed of their eating better enables containment of any spread

These magnificent birds perform a vital role in the ecosystem by cleaning up carcasses and organic waste from the environment. We can be thankful for that because this world would have to deal with terrible consequences if there were no vultures left in the world.

Already, African vultures are also now in danger of extinction. Let’s hope that they also will come to see that vultures are strong, beautiful, and protective and that they can be saved and their numbers can grow. The planet is getting smaller, and every vulture counts.