Wildlife & Biodiversity

Multi-stakeholder approach needed to address Assam’s vulture poisoning incidents

Farmers set poisoned meat to kill dogs, but vultures die in huge numbers, leaving few records of dog mortality

By Jitul Kalita
Published: Wednesday 07 June 2023
A poisoning incident in Sivasagar in 2023 recorded the death of 33 vultures. Photo: Sthitapragyan Mallik.

It was just another ordinary day at the Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre (VCBC) at Rani before Monisha Das, a pashu sakhi (friend of animals), informed my colleague about finding two dead and sick vultures in Alukhunda village, Assam.

The vultures were immediately transported to the centre with the help of the forest department. The arrival of sick and dead vultures continued for the next two months. The incidents were linked to the consumption of poisoned carcasses; some vultures fell ill, while the unfortunate ones perished from the poisoned meal.

Also read: Vultures mostly forage outside protected areas; conservation efforts should be focused there, urges study

It was just the start of the winter migration period of Himalayan vultures in Assam. The season has seen a significant increase in sick and dead vultures. Apart from the vicinity of VCBC, numerous cases of vulture poisoning have been reported from the various districts of Assam.

Mortality of vultures is recorded if the number involved is whopping, else numerous incidents of poisoning-related deaths in rural areas go unreported. Diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug used to treat cattle, was previously recognised as a major cause of vulture death in the Indian subcontinent. However, poisoned carcasses have emerged as a major cause of vulture death, specifically in Assam. Such poisoning threatens our ecosystem as well.

Vulture vs dogs

Cattle owners in villages may occasionally experience the loss of their cattle or goat due to dog bites. Cattle are usually left here for free ranching after the harvest. Most of the time, packs of stray dogs chase and kill weak, young, pregnant cows and, in some cases, goats.

 Photo: Sthitapragyan Mallik.

This results in an economic setback and an emotional blow for the owner. Often, the troublesome dogs are rabies-infected. In such a case, blinded by anger, the cattle owner chooses to kill the canines.

Chemicals, especially pesticides used in agriculture, are sprayed on the dead cattle to kill the dogs. As the poisoned carcass is left in open fields, it also attracts vultures.

The poison sprayed on the carcass shows its effects, and the vultures die in huge numbers. In this way, it causes mass mortality among vultures. Although the trap is set for dogs, there are few records of dog mortality from such traps. A poisoning incident in Sivasagar in 2023 recorded the death of 33 vultures, whereas the recorded dog mortality was only one.

Since the incidents were deemed to be unintentional, local administration, in every instance, refrains from taking any action against the parties involved. Most people are ignorant of the species and do not notice these poisoning incidents. Vultures are seldom ever thought of as a species included in Schedule I of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.

Also read: In defence of vultures, nature’s early-warning systems that are holy to many people

Protected areas in Assam cover 3,925 square kilometres or just around 5 per cent of the state’s total area. However, the majority of the vulture colonies are outside the protected areas. Lakhimpur, Sivasagar, Kamrup, Kokrajhar and Dhubri districts, which do not lie in protected areas, are the major regions with vulture colonies. Without legal protection, monitoring vultures and tracking their food is extremely difficult. 

After the Himalayan vultures arrive in the winter in Assam, the situation gets worse. Along with a few resident vultures, including white-backed and slender-billed vultures, they roam around crop fields.

Himalayan vultures have arrived in such large numbers that their mortalities have also increased significantly. The fact that these vultures are dying before they can reproduce is something to worry about. They are considered juveniles when they enter our state.

The mortality of vultures due to food poisoning is not restricted to one or two districts of the state. The districts, including Tinsukia, Lakhimpur, Shivsagar, Majuli and Kamrup, have also reported similar cases.

So it is a challenging task to monitor vulture poisoning. The only way to solve this problem is to make everyone aware; a single institute or non-profit cannot do the task alone.

A multi-stakeholder approach can address the issue by incorporating non-profits, forest departments, scientists, and other organisations. People must know that killing this species, included in Schedule I of the WPA, is as punishable as killing a tiger.

The message must reach the last person, else Himalayan vultures will not take long to gain the same endangered or critically endangered status as other Gyps vulture species.

Read more:

Jitul Kalita is a conservation biologist at BNHS.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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