How preparations for Madhya Pradesh’s tourism festival drove down vulture population in this town

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.

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 indicusG 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.”