NG Grant Will Help WVU Researcher Track India’s Declining Vulture Population

National Geographic Grant Will Help WVU Researcher Track India's Declining Vulture Population
National Geographic Grant Will Help WVU Researcher Track India’s Declining Vulture Population
West Virginia University
West Virginia University

Morgantown, WV -( India’s native vulture population has plummeted as much as 97 percent since the early 1990s, as a result of chemical and environmental factors.

In response to their critically endangered status, West Virginia University geography professor Jonathan Hall will track a portion of the remaining wild birds in an effort to improve Indian vulture conservation status.

Vultures play an important part in the ecological cycle in India, Hall said. In most parts of the country residents do not consume their livestock using them primarily for milk, wool, and labor. When livestock die, the carcasses are taken to designated disposal facilities where they are then consumed by vultures.

But up until 2006, a veterinary drug called diclofenac was widely used to treat livestock. The drug, while helpful for livestock, was deadly to vultures that consumed inoculated animals, inducing renal failure and other illness, before eventually leading to death.

“There are a lot of livestock populations that have been traditionally cleaned up by these vultures,” Hall said. “The introduction of this veterinary drug has really crashed that population.”

Populations collapsed, and the drug was eventually banned though some evidence suggests diclofenac is still in use, Hall said.

“Diclofenac use has decreased, but alternative drugs are sometimes three times as expensive,” he said.

Without a vulture population to dispose of livestock carcasses, human health issues have begun to problems, especially for rural populations. The number of feral dogs in Western India has increased dramatically due to lack of competition for carrion. Historically dog populations were kept in check by large numbers of vultures that quickly and efficiently disposed of livestock carcasses. As dog populations have increased so have cases of dog attacks on humans and transmission of rabies, Hall said.

With funding from National Geographic, Hall and his team will attach solar-powered GPS tracking units to vultures to monitor their movements across the landscape. The units will give researchers updates on the birds’ locations every 15 minutes, allowing Hall and his team to develop a model of Indian vulture ecology that will better inform efforts to save this important species.

“From an ecological standpoint, we don’t know where the best places for these birds are. With this data, we have a clearer idea of how they use the landscape and eventually what areas are best suited to support populations,” he said.

“When captive bred birds are ready for release our team will be able to say ‘we’ve been tracking around 10-20 for the past year and they’ve frequented these areas and avoided these areas. Perhaps we should try releasing them in the former areas rather than the later areas.’”