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They swoop down on the prey and fall prey

By Marcus Dam

KOLKATA, JUNE 19. Perhaps the most common bird of prey, the vulture, is no longer as common as it used to be a decade ago, at least in the Indian subcontinent.

Periodic surveys sponsored by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests warn of at least three popular species of the flying scavengers turning extinct in the near future unless steps are taken to check their rapidly dwindling population. The surveys carried out by ornithologists of the Bombay Natural History Society — a non-government organisation that has been for over a century engaged in research in wildlife conservation and specialises in studies on birds — conclude that the vulture population in the country has declined by more than 90 per cent over the past five years. This can be a potential health hazard. With India having the largest cattle population in the world, these birds of prey are nature's way of preventing the spread of disease from rotting animal carcasses.

The BNHS, in collaboration with the Haryana Government, has set up a captive breeding facility for vultures in Pinjore and is planning two other centres in West Bengal and Assam.

Speaking to The Hindu, Vibhu Prakash, principal scientist and ornithologist, BNHS, said that the most threatened species were the white-backed, the long-billed and the slender-billed vultures. The white-backed species, which used to be found in hundreds in the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, Rajasthan, in the 1980s, have totally disappeared from the park. "The annual rate of decline over the past decade of the slender-billed vulture — the rarest vulture in the world which is found in the Gangetic — is 89 per cent. The population of the long-billed vulture has also fallen by more than 95 per cent," said Mr. Prakash.

The situation is similar in other parts of the subcontinent. A team of experts from the Washington State University carried surveys in Pakistan recently. The Bangladesh and Nepal Governments are also concerned, he said. "Experts are trying to ascertain the cause behind this fast dwindling in population. What compounds the matter is that the vultures are very slow breeders making population recovery long-drawn."

What is killing the vultures?

"Post-mortem of vulture carcasses indicate visceral gout resulting in kidney failure, the evidence pointing out that death might have been caused by an infectious disease," Mr. Prakash said. Vultures that feed on carcasses of cattle that were injected with anti-inflammatory veterinary drugs are particularly susceptible to such disease. "But the search for the cause of such a population-crash continues."

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