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Vultures back from the brink

Chander Suta Dogra
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Precariously perched:One of five endangered white-backed vultures (Gyps bengalensis).Photo: Mohammed Yousuf
Precariously perched:One of five endangered white-backed vultures (Gyps bengalensis).Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

The good news is that the fall of vultures in South Asia, particularly India, has stopped and is even reversing in the case of some species such as the white-backed vulture.

A research paper in journal Science , titled “Pollution, politics and vultures,” says the 2006 ban on manufacture, import and sale of painkiller diclofenac for veterinary use, a cause for vulture mortality, and the timely response of the governments in India have helped.

But the increase in the number of birds has been miniscule, after almost 99 per cent of them in the wild dying. The situation remains precarious, and vulture conservationists say the increase is too little to mean much.

As against a population of 40 million vultures of different species in the 1980s, a rough estimate by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) in 2011 put the count at fewer than a lakh in India. This is up from the 40,000 or so documented by it in 2007. Oriental white-backed vulture, long-billed vulture and slender-billed vulture, all resident varieties, have been the most affected.

The research paper by Andrew Balmford of Cambridge University, while giving a perspective on the progress of vulture conservation in South Asia, documents the turnaround story of vultures and praises India for timely action in saving the species from extinction. It goes on to say that in comparison, the response of western governments was much slower in banning pesticide organochlorides and DDT 40 years ago. The pesticide effect in the West continues to cause grave damage to non-target organisms. But in South Asia, the fact that the decline has significantly slowed and possibly even reversed has been directly attributed to prompt action over the past decade.

Dr. Balmford says, “The vulture collapse is an immense problem — in its sheer extent as well as in its significance for people. So news that the declines are beginning to slow and even reverse is extremely welcome and a testament both to the tremendous hard work of all the NGOs in the SAVE consortium and to the responsiveness of governments in the region.”

Though diclofenac, which is said to be as fatal for vultures as cyanide is for humans — just one meal on a contaminated carcass is enough to kill a bird — has been banned for veterinary use, the emerging challenge is the misuse by vets of multi-dose vials meant for human use. Vibhu Prakash, Head of the BNHS’s vulture conservation programme, says, “We have been pressing the Union Health Ministry to ban the production of multi-dose vials of diclofenac sodium, which are generally of 10 ml to 30 ml, and enough for one cattle dose. The other problem is that other veterinary drugs like acyclofenac and ketoprocin, which are also fatal for vultures, are still in use.”

Since even the 2006 ban on diclofenac took about three years to be effective, he reckons that it will take another five years or so before significant numbers of this scavenger bird can be seen in the wild. The alternate pain killer, meloxicam, is expensive and not as effective, which is why veterinarians sometimes use the ones meant for humans. Just 0.05 per cent of diclofenac in a carcass is enough to kill a vulture, which dies of kidney failure, within days of ingesting the contaminated meat

The lack of vulture safe zones where diclofenac does not linger in the food chain, in the country is also the reason why the BNHS is unable to release its captive bred vultures into the wild as yet. Some 300 birds, including 46 chicks, have been bred in the three BNHS breeding centres, Pinjore in Haryana, Rani in Assam and in West Bengal.

The BNHS has set 2016 as the target year to begin releasing its captive vultures subject to the availability of vulture safe zones till then.

Some States like Punjab, Maharashtra and West Bengal also set up vulture restaurants in the last few years, to provide diclofenac free carcasses but the experiment has not been very successful. Says Dr. Prakash, “This concept does not work in India because here there is no dearth of food for vultures. It will work only if the authorities can ensure that for at least a 100 kilometre radius no carcass is available, so that the vultures eat only at the ‘restaurant.’ Only 5 per cent of the Indian cattle bear traces of the drug, but even this has proved enough to decimate the vulture population.

The SAVE (Save Asia’s Vultures from Extinction) consortium for efforts across borders was set up in 2011 and subsequently a new Regional Steering Committee was set up by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Indian government. The thrust is on vulture breeding, advocacy and carcass sampling.


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