Dr S M Satheesan has been India's leading consulting expert on Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) Prevention since 1992. His doctorate is on Pariah Kite as a problem bird at Indian aerodromes. He has participated in several vulture and BASH conferences in India and abroad (South Africa, France Spain, USA, and Kenya)…
Q: What is the main cause of vulture decline in India according to your research and experiences? Can you explain how vultures lost the fight with man due to population explosion?
Historically vultures belonged to open areas in the fringes or outskirts of forested areas, Protected Areas (Sanctuaries and National Parks) and villages surrounding them where they subsisted on carnivore kills and carcasses of large animals till the 60s all over the Indian Sub-continent. Due to unplanned urbanization of the 70s and 80s in India, following villagers migrating to towns and cities leaving their agriculture and seeking modern jobs, bringing large number of cattle and sheep to feed the increased urban populace with meat, milk, and other dairy products, the vultures also shifted to towns and cities utilizing the large number of cattle and sheep carcasses available there because of insufficient and inefficient carcass disposal systems that prevailed in urbanized areas. This superabundant food supply in the form of carcasses fed the vultures because of flayers or skinners who were part of the small-scale industry that utilized the hide, bones and other parts, and enhanced the vulture populations to pest proportions making them the most serious hazards to aircraft flight safety. Between 1980 and 1996 Indian Air Force lost at least one military aircraft, mainly fighter jet, every year due to vulture hits and caused the Indian aviation industry a financial loss of more than 300 crores of rupees (70 million US Dollars) per year. World over birds were killed in large numbers to reduce bird hits to aircraft. Vulture menace to aircraft flight safety had forced aviation authorities in India also to kill a large number of vultures and the remaining populations deserted previous strongholds for safer localities.
Q: You worked to prevent vulture-aircraft collisions for aerodromes in 1980s, please share your observations.
The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), in Mumbai, under late Dr Salim Ali, was asked to carry out research on “Ecological Study of Bird Hazards at some Indian Aerodromes” in 1980 and provide recommendations to Aeronautical Research & Development Board (Government of India, Ministry of Defence) in 1989. I was part of this research team. Some 25% of bird collisions with aircraft were due to vultures in the 80s and 90s till vulture near decimation occurred.
Q: For a wild bird like vulture, what will be better- in-situ or ex-situ conservation? Why?
The idea of Vulture Restaurants (also known as Supplementary Feeding Sites for Vultures)-first conceived by the Natal Parks Board in South Africa in 1966 to draw vultures away from the cities and towns provide safe and uncontaminated food (from large mammal carcasses in necessary quantity as well as bone chips as calcium supplement and water to drink and bathe) to vultures in an enclosure that provides safety while feeding, resting, drinking, and bathing which is not available in nature. Moreover, it gives freedom to the birds to visit the feeding site whenever they want, allows them to fly wherever and whenever they want thus respecting the principles of animal welfare and environmental ethics. As confinement and handling of birds as in captive-holding and captive-breeding centres are not there, there is no fear psychosis or imprinting or health problems for vultures. Moreover, this conservation tool respects all norms of animal ethics, health, and welfare. Photography and studies on vultures can be done using hides so that the birds feeding is not affected by the human activities. Vulture restaurants can be used for awareness purposes on species conservation and bird collisions with aircraft and as a tool for research for students. This can be an excellent tourist attraction. After two to three years of setting up the vulture restaurant, the system can become self-sustaining and no more external funding will be required if a small entry fee is administered to use the system by outsiders. When food is provided regularly at one site vultures need not forage far and wide in 100 km in radius or in over 30,000 sq km, as they do when food availability is not guaranteed and thus, they are tied to the feeding site without a thread. As this in-situ conservation is happening in a rural set up, ideally on the outskirts of a Protected Area (a carnivore sanctuary) and around rural area, villagers become part of the vulture conservation endeavor thus making it a people’s programme. As vultures confine themselves to the area on their own as food is regularly provided, the aerodrome areas are spared by them thus reducing vulture collisions with aircraft. But to achieve cent percent aviation safety from the angle of vulture collisions on aircraft, civic authorities including the police department, villagers, aerodrome officials, and all other aviation stakeholders have to work together not to allow dumping of animal carcasses in all areas 100 km in radius of all aerodromes for which new rules and regulations have to be made. Responsible organizations and experts have to be identified who can set up, monitor, and control vulture populations and use vulture restaurants wisely and judiciously for the benefit of mankind.
Q: What can be more promising ways for vulture conservation?
Other than feeding stations for vultures, threats to vultures include direct and indirect poisoning by poachers to kill wild animals for tradable body parts and farmers taking revenge on carnivores for cattle kills. Even trapping vultures for food, medicine, and research, tagging, captive breeding should be totally banned. Vulture restaurants should be used to create awareness among children to save vultures which are the life insurance and health insurance plans and policies of nature by checking outbreak and spread of infectious diseases. Awareness and involvement of local communities play an important role. The natural habitats should be protected by all means.
Q: Even after the ban of Diclofenac in 2005, the vulture population isn’t increasing as it should have been. Where are the conservation efforts lacking?
Diclofenac and other NSAIDs are not any major cause of vulture mortality. If they could kill vultures, it would have decimated them long back by feeding on corpses of Parsees laden with NSAIDs. This vulture decimation started only in 1992 onwards, obviously because of Implementation of BNHS recommendations to reduce vulture hits on aircraft as denying carcasses in 13-km radius of all aerodromes and killing them.
Q: How can the involvement of local communities help in vulture conservation?
Vulture conservation is basically a job of the masses and hence their awareness and involvement are crucial to remove threats and protect the natural habitats of vultures and to run vulture restaurants.
Q: What are your suggestions to conservationists working for vulture conservation in India?
Learn more about vultures so that your contribution to vulture conservation has a scientific basis. I request gypsophils, vulture enthusiasts, ornithologists and conservationists and selfless souls to know the actual causes of vulture decline rather than blinding following the diclofenac theory.
Leave a comment