Toby Galligan is a conservation scientist in the RSPB’s International Research Section. He works with RSPB partners in India and Nepal to establish and maintain Vulture Safe Zones through research, monitoring and conservation. In this post, Toby talks about his work with India's red-headed vultures.

RSPB science has shown that the Indian population of red-headed vulture Sarcogyps calvus crashed by 90% between 1992 and 2007, but we do not know what caused this decline.

During the same period, four species of Gyps vulture also crashed in India and RSPB science helped determine the cause: specifically, we showed that the drug diclofenac, known to be toxic to Gyps vultures and widely used to treat ailments in livestock in South Asia, could persist in livestock carcasses and was thereby poisoning large numbers of vultures.

The toxicity of diclofenac to Gyps vultures was revealed through experimental and observational data ; but we lack these data to say whether or not diclofenac is toxic to the Sarcogyps vulture.

We might assume that diclofenac is toxic to the red-headed vulture and that the successful actions that we have implemented to save South Asia’s Gyps vultures will benefit this species as well, but if that assumption is wrong and we have overlooked the real threats, then we might see this species slip away.

The RSPB is not in the business of making assumptions; rather we aim to determine the cause of decline in the red-headed vulture through sound conservation science.

Image 1: red-headed vulture by Rohan M. Shringarpure.

The cause of decline is not the only thing that we do not know about the red-headed vulture. In fact, there is little known at all about this naturally scarce and elusive species.

We do know that it does not behave like Gyps vultures – Gyps vultures are gregarious and specialise in rapidly de-fleshing a carcass; the redheaded vulture is solitary, possibly territorial, and seems to pick at its food.

So how do we learn about “redheads” – as I like to call them? How do we learn about their secrets and threats?

The answer is: we let them take us on a guided tour of their day to day lives.

We can do this using telemetry. More specifically, we can use devices nicknamed “tags” that we attach to redheads to transmit data via satellites to our desk top computers.

This data shows us the location, movement and home-ranges of “tagged” individuals; coupled with on the ground tracking, we can also find roosting, foraging and nesting sites.

Further, if one of our tagged redheads dies, we can pinpoint the location and recover the corpse for post mortem examination to determine the cause of death.  

 A better understanding of the ecology and the causes of death of tagged redheads will better inform our conservation actions to save this Critically Endangered species.  

Image 2: releasing a tagged redhead by Rohan M. Shringarpure.

I would like you to follow our redhead research, and the red-heads themselves, through a series of blogs. Over the upcoming months, I will describe the process of trapping, tagging and tracking; provide maps of redhead movements; and share our findings and photos. My aim is to show you a part of how RSPB science works overseas for global species conservation and to engage you in vulture conservation in South Asia. But it will be the redheads themselves that will show both you and me their secret lives.