Pinjore: Eight captive-reared critically endangered white-backed vultures are set to take wings early next year for the first time in India since the vulture conservation centre near here was set up in September 2001.
The Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre on the edge of the Bir Shikargaha Wildlife Sanctuary is a joint project of Haryana and the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) with the British government’s Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species Fund to investigate the massive decline of three critically endangered Gyps species of vultures in India.
Six captive-bred vultures and two rescued from the wild will be tagged with a 30-gram device for satellite telemetry each with a battery backup of three-four years and this will help understanding their behaviour and survival instincts in the wild, BNHS Principal Scientist Vibha Prakash told IANS here.
He said the vultures would be released most probably by March-April next year in the Bir Shikargaha sanctuary where the BNHS is working to declare it as vulture safe zone, which extends transboundary into Himachal Pradesh where the wildlife awareness among the villagers is quite high.
“If any of the released vulture die or get injured, we can recover them. Satellite telemetry will help us to know the cause of death and prevent other vultures dying from that cause.”
The satellite tags will also be useful in discovering whether the captive-bred birds behave normally in the wild with other closely-related species.
In the first event of its kind in South Asia, the government of Nepal and national and international conservation organisations released critically endangered white-backed vultures in the wild on November 9, 2017.
India is home to nine species of vultures. Three of these species, the white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed vultures, underwent catastrophic population declines of greater than 90 per cent in the mid-1990s. The birds are now listed as critically endangered.
The vulture, a nature’s scavenger, cleans the environment of animal carcasses. Villagers rely on them to dispose of cattle carcasses.
The reason, say biologists, for bringing the vultures to the brink of extinction in South Asia mainly to the extensive use of diclofenac in treating cattle.Vultures that consumed the carcass of animals treated with diclofenac died with symptoms of kidney failure. The Indian government banned its veterinary use in 2006.
BNHS scientist Prakash said “if there is no toxicity-related death of these eight birds in two years, then we will go for release of 20-25 birds each year”.
“We are planning to introduce 100 pairs each of the three species of white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed in the wild in the next 10 years. Before that, findings from the first proposed release batch will be crucial in the future programmes.”
The long-billed and slender-billed vultures will be released in Madhya Pradesh and Assam, respectively.
Officials admit the flight to freedom of these endangered vultures is still caught in red-tapism in the Haryana Forest Department, which has been authorised to procure 10 platform terminal transmitters or satellite telemetries through global bidding.
“These birds have been shifted to the pre-release aviary for over a year and a half. Twice their release was postponed last year. The only hurdle is the procurement of satellite telemetries and that too is bogged down by bureaucratic delays,” an official, requesting anonymity, told IANS.
“The birds are now two to four years old and this is the best age group for their release. The delay in their release will definitely delay the vulture reintroduction programme,” he added.
Prior to this release, two captive Himalayan griffon vultures were released in the wild in June 2016 from the Pinjore centre on an experimental basis.
Both birds were wing-tagged and leg-ringed for identification, but not tagged with satellite transmitters.
It was part of Asia’s first Gyps Vulture Reintroduction Programme under which the captive-bred birds were to be introduced in the wild.
The team managed to monitor one released bird for a day before it disappeared, while the second bird was tracked for almost a month and never sighted again.
The Pinjore centre, Asia’s first centre of its kind, houses 289 Gyps species vultures; 198 of them bred at the facility that is funded by the central government.
Two such conservation and breeding centres are in Rani in Assam and Rajabhatkhawa in West Bengal.