A town in Madhya Pradesh’s Niwari district earlier this month hosted a government-driven, three-day international tourism festival called Namaste Orchha. The town is known for its 16th-century monuments built by the Bundela Rajput rulers. The dynasty’s founder Rudra Pratap Singh had made Orchha the capital of his kingdom and built many forts and temples. There are more than 50 ancient monuments in the town.

It’s not all joy and festivities, however. Orchha is also home to the Indian vulture or Gyps indicus, white-backed vulture or Gyps africanus, and Egyptian vulture or Neophron percnopterus. These vulture species build their nests on tall trees, cliffs and old monuments and buildings. The historic buildings in Orchha also house many vulture nests. Conservationists say the government’s restoration of these sites ahead of Namaste Orchha, held from March 6 to March 8, has damaged vultures’ breeding prospects there.

“We have photographs showing how nests vanished after the cleaning,” said researcher Sonika Kushwaha, who has studied the bird extensively and authored research papers on them. She is also the president of the Indian Biodiversity Conservation Society based in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh.

Kushwaha and other wildlife conservations argue that the authorities in charge of Namaste Orchha have overlooked the need to protect vultures and are causing irreversible damage to the already fragile ecosystem. She cited the audio-visual spectacle that has been planned as a case in point.

According to an Indian Biodiversity Conservation Society survey, Orchha had 35 vultures in nine monuments in 2010-’11, but by 2019-’20, only 11 vultures were left. “There are no vultures left in Laxmi temple, Raja Ram Mandir, Phool Bagshish Mahal, Jahangir Mahal, Topachi ki Haweli, Ramnagar and Suparisaw ka Mahal, where at least two vultures resided 10 years ago. Now, only two places ‒ Chaturbhuj Mandir and Chatris ‒ have the vulture population,” the survey said.

Vulture resides in monuments of Orchha. Credit: Indian Biodiversity Conservation Society.

Official figures of the Madhya Pradesh government vary from that of the Indian Biodiversity Conservation Society survey. They say Orchha and nearby forests had 87 vultures in 2019 and that their number was about 60 two years ago.

The government numbers about the overall vulture population in Madhya Pradesh indicate that it has increased by 864 between January 2016 and 2019. The vulture census had pegged the population of the bird at 7,906. According to the latest statement released by the state government on March 3, the number of vultures now stands at more than 8,500.

“It will be almost impossible to bring vultures back to their nests once they leave,” said fellow researcher Akhilesh Kumar.

Vultures’ ecological role

Vultures eat the flesh of dead animals. A study published in 2008 likened the bird to a natural resource that provides the service of disposing off the bodies of dead animals. “In removing carcasses rapidly and efficiently, vultures cleanse the environment and help protect humans, livestock and wildlife from infectious diseases,” says the study, published in journal Ecological Economics.

Potentially fatal pathogens breed on dead bodies and can infect human beings directly or indirectly. Tuberculosis, anthrax and malta fever are a few such diseases. If no scavenger consumes the decomposing flesh, house flies and a host of other agents can contaminate the surroundings with these disease-causing pathogens.

Vultures are so efficient at scavenging that they can reduce the carcass of a large animal to clean bones in an hour, greatly reducing the scope of infection spread. Also, vultures are the only species whose metabolism neutralises these pathogens. Other scavenger species like rats and dogs can become carriers of harmful pathogens if they consume an infected carcass.

Further, the Ecological Economics and other studies suggest a correlation between a decline in vulture population and an increase in dog population. As one scavenger species begins to disappear, the other species has more food available and thus its population tends to grow.

An increase in dog population poses a threat to humans and wildlife species as well. The aforesaid study states that according to a conservative estimate, the number of human deaths caused by an increase in the dog population ‒ owing to rabies caused by dog bites ‒ between 1992 and 2006 stood at 48,886.

The study estimated that between 1992 and 2006, decline in vulture population had a health impact to the tune of Rs 998-1,095 billion in India. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, mentions three vulture species ‒ Gyps indicus, G bengalensis and G tenuirostris ‒ in its Schedule I, under which species are to be accorded “absolute protection”. Offences against species mentioned in Schedule I attract the highest penalty.

The Red List of Threatened Species, a globally recognised resource on biodiversity, categorises the Indian vulture as a critically endangered bird.

Government’s assurances

Faiz Ahmed Kidwai, Managing Director of Madhya Pradesh Tourism, which is a stakeholder in Namaste Orchha, said the government was taking “necessary precautions” to avoid disturbing vultures before and during the programme. However, he could not highlight what precautions were being taken.

A ranger of Orchha forest range, Anand Shrivastava, was quoted in a news report as saying that the forest department is aware of vultures’ habitat in the region and had asked other departments to safeguard the birds in the run-up to and during the upcoming tourism festival.

In a statement, the deputy director of the Archeological Survey of India KL Dabhi said, “We have stopped all kinds of work there. Even manual maintenance work, no nest was disturbed. The only reason behind vultures not being in their nests is that they go to forests in the morning and come back in the evening. There is no problem at all.”

Conservationists dismissed this theory. “Government officials are being ignorant about this issue,” said Bhopal-based bird expert Dilsher Khan.

Apart from researchers Kushwaha and Kumar, Khan and forest and wildlife activist Ajay Dubey too said that vultures’ nests were destroyed during the cleaning and painting of monuments. While Khan wrote to the Forest Department about this, Dubey has filed a complaint with the Union environment ministry.

Khan said that restoration work has caused irreversible harm but there is still scope to avoid further damage. Like Kushwaha, he said fireworks and the light-and-sound show need to be scrapped. He said he was planning on meeting the forest minister and the authorities concerned to impress upon them the need to protect vultures.

Kushwaha said she wouldn’t expect much to come out of it. “We have written to the archaeological department, forest department and to the ministry as well but got no response from any responsible authority,” said Kushwaha.

She said that when she brought up concerns about the effect of the light and sound show on the ulture population, the official dismissed them as myths. Kushwaha lamented the decision-makers’ ignorance and denial. She said she has provided the government with all the information about the effects of removal of vultures’ nest for Namaste Orchha but the government still refuses to accept it.

“The government is spending crores of rupees for vulture conservation but on the other hand, there is no protection of their natural habitats,” Khan said.

Curse of commercialisation

Conservationists are also peeved at the brazen use of drones at vultures’ breeding sites. The promotional video for Namaste Orchha itself has many visuals shot from drones. Bird expert Khan said conservationists, the Archaeological Survey of India and Forest Department officials had discussions about safeguarding vultures but nothing came out of it.

He said it was concluded that no shooting will be allowed during the birds’ breeding period but the Archaeological Survey, which often gives permission for wedding or commercial videos during the times the birds ought to be left alone, of India fails to ensure that.

He said vultures had been nesting in the Chaturbhuj temple but had now lost their nests and chicks to the government’s restoration work. Experts recommend taking up maintenance when vultures are not breeding, from May to September. However, the Madhya Pradesh administration began work on Orchha monuments after Chief Secretary SR Mohanty directed the state machinery in November to restore important tourist places.

This beautification drive, taken up at the cost of Rs 1.5 crore between November and March, clashes with the birds’ breeding period. Kushwaha cited the use of heavy machinery near vulture nests and said the bird may leave its nest because of human interference. She said currently only two monuments in Orchha have vulture nests, against nine in 2009.

A petition on Change.org to save vultures of Orchha, started by Indian Biodiversity Conservation Society, says the birds’ visits to their nests decline because of human interference, which leaves chicks malnourished and uncared in cold weather.

Researchers Kushwaha and Kumar also feel that the frequent presence of people in the breeding areas alters the behavior of adult vultures, during the nesting period. They also allege that some tourists pelt stones at the nests for fun and that volunteers have rescued several birds that were injured by stones hurled by tourists.

Restoration of monuments and beautification drive in Orchha was conducted between November and March. Credit: Mathew Knott/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

On the decline

Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar had told the Parliament in July 2019 that while India had about four crore vultures of three species in early-1980s, their number had plummeted to 19,000 by 2015. The three species are white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed.

In the written reply in Lok Sabha, the minister stated that the crash in population was first noticed in the mid-’90s. By 2007, there was a 99% decline in the population of the critically-endangered resident Gyps vultures. Categorised as old-world vultures, they are slow breeders and lay only one egg a year.

The biggest cause of the fall in vulture population is the practice of administering a common drug, diclofenac, to cattle. It is a cheap drug that is used to relieve cattle of pain, fever and inflammation. When a sick animal dies within a week of being given diclofenac, it remains in their system. When vultures consume the carcass of such animals, the drug enters their system. Unlike mammals, birds metabolise the drug differently. Even a small quantity of it is toxic for them. It ends up causing kidney failure in them and kills them within a month.

A single carcass contaminated with diclofenac can kill anywhere 350-800 vultures. Diclofenac was banned for veterinary use in India in March 2006. However, conservationists allege that many cattle owners give diclofenac meant for human use to their animals. Carcasses of such cattle continue to be a threat to the vulture population.

The Government of India has formed a National Action Plan on vulture conservation. It has recommended strategies to check the downfall in vulture population. It has requested all the states and Union Territories to set up a monitoring committee to implement the plan.

Bird experts are accusing the Madhya Pradesh government of apathy at a time when India hosted the 13th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. The high-stakes programme was held in Gujarat from February 15 to February 22.

Researchers recommend that authorities concerned take urgent action and coordinate among themselves to ensure vultures are not disturbed during their breeding season. Many countries where vulture population has declined have started vulture restaurants, another name for vulture feeding sites or vulture safe zones. Here, drug-free carcasses are put out for vultures to feed on. In a story last year, Mongabay-India had described how the number of vulture nests in Nepal’s Pithauli town on the outskirts of Chitwan National Park had increased after Bird Conservation Nepal started buying old cattle from their owners, take care of them until they were alive and then put out their carcass for vultures after their natural death.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.