A first of its kind Vulture diet study reveals conservation needs in India – Times of India


BENGALURU: A study led by Bengaluru scientists — a first-of-its-kind in the Indian subcontinent — conducted across several Indian states has shed light on the dietary habits of threatened vulture species, providing crucial insights for their conservation efforts.
The research, published in the journal Biological Conservation, employed a novel metabarcoding technique (plant and animal identification based on DNA-based identification and rapid DNA sequencing) to analyse faecal samples from four vulture species within the genus Gyps: the White-rumped vulture, Indian vulture, Eurasian griffon, and Himalayan griffon.
Mosumi Ghosh-Harihar, the lead author of the paper said: “Metabarcoding allowed us to generate data on vulture diets from a large number of faecal samples very efficiently and reliably. We could use samples collected without disturbing the birds. The pipeline (designed by us) allowed us to simultaneously identify the vulture species, its sex and dietary species.”
Led by scientists from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS-TIFR) in Bengaluru, Bombay Natural History Society, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Karnataka Vulture Conservation Trust, and Hume Centre for Ecology and Wildlife Biology, the study found that large ungulates, both domestic and wild, were the main dietary components for these vultures.
However, the composition of their diet varied significantly. In most regions, vultures primarily scavenged on domestic ungulate carcasses, likely due to the high availability of livestock. Conversely, in South Indian states, the vultures primarily fed on wild ungulate remains, potentially due to lower livestock carcass availability and cultural traditions involving cattle and buffalo meat consumption.
The findings underscore the vultures’ significant dependence on domestic ungulate carrion, highlighting the need for continued efforts to eliminate harmful veterinary drugs, such as diclofenac, which caused catastrophic declines in vulture populations in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“Diclofenac-contaminated carcasses, when scavenged by the vultures, led to widespread mortality. Particularly, populations of the three resident Gyps species (G. bengalensis, G. indicus, G. tenuirostris) witnessed a staggering decline of greater than 95%, making them critically endangered and prompting prohibition of veterinary diclofenac in India and neighbouring countries by 2006,” NCBS said.
Two decades later, the numbers of all three species remain low and relatively stable, with no signs of recovery. However, despite the ban on diclofenac, its illegal use in treating livestock persists and remains unregulated in many pockets of the country, NCBS added.
“Our results emphasise the need for a continued ban on veterinary diclofenac use, as well as other NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)… We hope these biological insights can contribute to on-ground population management for their conservation and recovery,” said Prof Uma Ramakrishnan, the senior author of the study from NCBS.
Researchers urge for ongoing conservation actions, including testing drugs for their impact on vultures, advocating for legal bans, and ensuring enforcement and education to promote compliance.
With vulture populations still critically low and showing no signs of recovery, this study provides valuable information to guide targeted conservation strategies and safeguard these essential scavengers in the Indian subcontinent.


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