The inter-Ministerial consultation on vulture conservation, convened by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, has sent out a clear message to the State agriculture departments: it is they who hold the key to the fortunes of three critically endangered species in India. After years of research, scientists concluded that the cause for extermination of about 95 per cent of the estimated populations of oriental white-backed, slender-billed, and long-billed vultures in the subcontinent is the painkiller diclofenac. Feeding on carcasses of cattle that had been administered the drug proved fatal to the birds. The Ministry responded positively to that finding by coming up with a multi-pronged strategy. It essentially consists of banning veterinary formulations of diclofenac, popularising the drug meloxicam to eliminate the threat to vultures from contaminated carcasses, and opening breeding centres. The results have been encouraging. There is a declining trend in the use of the toxic drug. The breeding centres at Pinjore in Haryana, Rajabhat Khawa in West Bengal, and the Rani range in Assam now host a good number of birds. Yet, given the scale of the ecological disaster that has struck vultures, much more needs to be done.

The supply of meloxicam, which leaves cattle carcasses safe for vultures, is unable to meet the demand. Such a situation exists in spite of an increase in the number of companies manufacturing the drug, since it became the molecule of choice for veterinary application five years ago. Farmers facing a shortage would naturally opt for alternatives such as diclofenac meant for human use. There is also a case for reviewing the pricing of meloxicam, an issue the Environment Ministry has been pursuing with the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority. A third drug tried for toxicity to vultures, ketoprofen, has failed to pass the test. What makes these issues critically important is the anecdotal evidence of a large number of vultures dying in agricultural areas, depleting the overall numbers. In a recent instance, 21 of these birds were found dead in Assam in a paddy field, reportedly after feeding on a carcass sprinkled with pesticide. The conservation programme should therefore make a systematic, annual count of all nine vulture species found in India, particularly the three species threatened with extinction, and assess all threats. Such a census is part of the Action Plan for Vulture Conservation prepared by the Environment Ministry in 2006; it is important to continue it even after self-sustaining populations have established themselves in the range States. The health of vultures in nature is indicative of the state of the ecosystem.

More In: Editorial | Opinion