vultures of india


Old World vultures belong to the same family of predatory birds that include the kites, eagles, hawks and buzzards. They do not share any relationship with the New World vultures other than a convergent evolution and scavenging habits with the former having a keen sense of smell.

former distribution of the three most endangered indian vultures

There are 16 species of Old World vultures found in Asia, Africa and some stretching into Europe too. Once numerous (approximately 40 million in the 1980s), particularly the species from Gyps, they have reduced much in number (recent census puts the number lesser than 60,000) and mostly from the Indian subcontinent due to alleged diclofenac poisoning. Of the 9 species found in India, 4 have been listed as critically endangered with populations reduced by as much as 99.9% in the cases of most.

diclofenac

The Indian government has banned dicolfenac since 2006 after BNHS launched a rigorous campaign against diclofenac in 2003 but given that the alternative meloxicam isn’t as effective and quite expensive, the former continues to be clandestinely used by cattle owners in India. Vultures are prone to acute kidney failure on a feast of carcass affected with the NSAID drug used as an analgesic for the livestock and death is pretty quick. There are other theories (malaria, rabies, pollution, habitat destruction, urbanization etc) that explain how much of India’s vulture population disappeared in a matter of two decades but most agree on poisoning by the anti-inflammatory drug.

how long more will the wings fly high?

Till the middle of 1980s vultures of the Gyps genus found in India were numerous to the point of being classified a nuisance as they were involved in many bird strikes. They were usually seen hovering over tall trees even in urban areas of Mumbai and Kolkata but the situation of today is pitiable. For every 1000 that India had at the onset of the 1990s only 1 remain two decades hence. It is rare to sight a vulture even in rural areas these days. The dakhmas of Mumbai lost their vultures too and the Parsis had to find alternatives for their dead ones or leave them to rot.

jatayu vadh by raja ravi varma

Facilities at Pinjore (Haryana), Rajabhatkhawa (West Bengal) and Rani (Assam) have been operating to captive-breed select vulture species of India with an objective to reintroduce them into the wild by 2016 but the constant setbacks one after another have been pushing their plans and bringing their ineffectiveness to light. It has become a fight of survival. On one hand we have the greedy bureaucrats who blindly paint a picture of things hunky dory and on the other we have the vultures of India, dying out in a lost battle. We cannot but evoke memories of Ramayana. The vulture king Jatayu lost his own life while saving Sita from the clutches of Ravana. Drawing a parallel, vultures naturally scavenge on carcass and keep the environment hygienic but their rapid disappearance has led dogs and rats to gobble them up instead and spread disease. We are digging a grave where much sooner after the vultures are put to rest there we will follow suit.

range of red-headed vulture

We need to spread the words fast before it’s too late. The government needs to be pushed for introducing measures to make the ban on diclofenac hundred percent effective and subsidize the alternatives so that they are readily and cheaply available. They should continue with breeding centers but Indians shouldn’t be kept in dark regarding the outcomes. Easy available publications on the status of Indian wildlife must come out periodically and people from the ministry involved should conduct meetings and seminars across the length and breadth of the nation with the ordinary junta. It might be wishful thinking at the best but the only alternative.

Conservation is not done by data hungry bureaucrats but by people who matter!

A list of the vultures found in India followed by a short description:

Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus) Near Threatened

cincerous vulture

They are the largest vulture species in the world and also the largest bird of prey. They are mostly found in Mediterranean Europe and Africa, Central Asia, parts of the Middle East, Mongolia, China and India. They are high-flying birds and usually dominate compared to other vultures at carcasses owing to their strength and powerful beak. They have been reduced much in number in Europe and elsewhere though a conservation project in Spain has worked well for their numbers but local extinction has been reported from other countries. They are one of the heaviest birds capable of flight with an average weight of around 14 kg and a wingspan of around 300 cm. In India they are mostly resident birds at the western Himalayan states with breeding populations in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) Least concern

bearded vulture

Found across southern Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, India, Nepal and Tibet it is one of the larger vulture species but are unusual in that they don’t have a bald head and neck. They are more related in appearance to hawks than vultures and are known to nest at extremely high altitudes. Individuals have been sighted at heights greater than 7000 m in the Himalayan region. An average bird will weigh around 7.5 kg and have a wingspan of around 300 cm.

Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) Least concern

griffon vulture

They are quite large and compare to the Cinereous vultures in size and occur in much the same range as the above two though the Indian population spreads even beyond the Himalayas and as far as in the Deccan. They can weigh as much as 13 kg but have a slightly smaller wingspan at around 280 cm.

Indian White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis) Critically endangered

indian white-rumped vulture

They were once found almost everywhere in India but have been much reduced in population and are now on the verge of extinction. They are the smallest of the Gyps vultures but still a large bird with average weight being 7.5 kg and a wingspan of around 260 cm.

Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus) Critically endangered

indian vulture

They are closely related to the Griffon vulture and are also known as the Long-billed vulture. The subspecies found in their northern ranges was classified as a distinct species as Slender-billed vulture. They weigh around 6.5 kg and have a wingspan of around 230 cm. They breed mainly on crags but in the absence of it may nest on trees too as found in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) Critically endangered

slender-billed vulture

Once clubbed with the Indian vulture (also called the Long-billed vulture) they have been recently classified as a distinct species. They are found south of the Gangetic plains from Himachal Pradesh in the west to Assam in the west and as south as Orissa. They are also found in Burma and Cambodia where in the absence of diclofenac there is a steady breeding population which nevertheless may not last till long. It is estimated the population in wild is around 1000 (almost 40% of which is in India) and will become extinct in another decade along with three other Indian species.

Himalayan Vulture (Gyps himalayensis) Least concern

himalayan vulture

They are the second largest Old vulture species in the world with adults weighing 12 kg on an average with a wingspan of around 310 cm. They nest at high crags and can be easily sighted in the Himalayan states feeding on carrion and basking in the Sun with their wings spread wide.

Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) Endangered

egyptian vulture

It is perhaps the smallest and most widespread of all the vultures found in India. The type species is from Egypt and the subspecies found in the subcontinent is paler and smaller with average weights of 2 kg and a wingspan of 170 cm. They are one of the two species of vultures with a significant population in south India, the other being the Red-headed. In ancient Egypt, it was used as one of hieroglyph and was a symbol of royalty. The Indian population has diminished much but the exact cause is not known though it is possibly related to diclofenac poisoning. They are one of the most migratory amongst vultures often covering distances as long as 6000 km and 500 km in a single day.

Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus) Critically endangered

red-headed vulture

Once a widespread bird across south Asia and as found as far as Singapore it has been now reduced to a sizeable population in Nepal and pockets of north India. They are medium-sized with adults weighing around 5.5 kg and a wingspan of around 250 cm. They are gaudy faced birds with a red or orange head but populations are down to extinction owing to diclofenac poisoning.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Anonymous on 06/03/2011 at 1:26 pm

    if you do not mind please explain me about the first three terms mentioned in the very first picture of this blog..

    Reply

  2. the first three terms are nothing but the scientific names of the three most endangered vultures of india.. G stands for gyps, the genus name.. i have the range map of almost all the vultures found in india but posted only a few out here.. gyps indicus stands for indian vulture (also called long-billed vulture), gyps bengalensis stands for indian white-rumped vulture and gyps tenuirostris stands for slender-billed vulture

    Reply

  3. Posted by anumita on 06/03/2011 at 1:49 pm

    ohh i see…
    thanks so much yaar..
    and its really very good article on different topic..
    keep writing and rock like this 🙂

    Reply

  4. Posted by anu on 07/03/2011 at 3:18 am

    Thanks for such an informative post Viv. Modernization is effecting earth as much as it is effecting culture. We all must act fast.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Aarti Gutch on 30/10/2014 at 9:15 pm

    I had seen vultures nine years back in pinjore, around 2005, 2006. Huge trees of kapok were full of these friends of nature specially in winter. Gradually disappeared. i keep on discussing with my students. really sad. Now not even a single bird is visible from last four-five years. needs attention.

    Reply

    • indeed very sad mam! as a kid, i too remember seeing them atop palm trees on the outskirts of kolkata! they are not seen anymore! 😦

      Reply

  6. Posted by Navin on 03/08/2015 at 3:07 pm

    Hello Vivek,
    Thanks for sharing such wonderful photos of vultures and grim state of affaris.
    I am bird photographer and recently picked up this hobby.

    Not sure if you are right person to ask but can you advise any locaiton around Jodhpur. Jaipur or Merta, where I can see vultures in natural habitat ?
    I am visiting Rajashtan in September end, from Maharashtra.

    Thank you

    Reply

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