Vultures may not win mass support as candidates for aggressive wildlife conservation, but there is renewed concern that three endemic species of the critically endangered bird among the nine recorded in South Asia could perish without active support. The scientific community has been examining the effects of ‘ketoprofen,’ a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) given to livestock, on Cape griffon and African white-backed vultures. These species are surrogates for the three endangered ones in the sub-continent — the oriental white-backed, slender-billed, and long-billed vultures. The scientists’ findings, published in the journal Biology Letters, indicate that this NSAID is deadly for Gyps vultures. Moreover, it is detected in livestock carcasses in India at toxic levels. The new evidence is cause for worry as it is the second such veterinary drug with serious consequences for the health of vultures. Earlier, ‘diclofenac’ administered to livestock was linked to a massive decline in Gyps vulture populations and this led to a ban on its use for veterinary purposes. Hearteningly, the Ministry of Environment and Forests is responding to the concern with support for conservation efforts. The chemical threat of course is by no means the only factor decimating vultures. Ornithologists point out that these birds are generally unaffected in protected areas. Preservation of habitat is therefore as critical as elimination of harmful veterinary drugs and captive breeding initiatives. As natural forests and other habitat shrink, the birds seek carrion over a wider area, including cities. They are then fatally exposed to carcasses that have toxic drug residues.

The first step in a long-term vulture conservation programme should be to produce a comprehensive population estimate of the birds. This will help map the areas that show declines and identify the cause of mortality. There is some useful baseline data in the form of transect surveys done since 1990, but there are gaps in the areas surveyed. Making a comparison of population estimates thus becomes difficult and the results remain tentative. Secondly, conservation measures need to address the question of availability of safe veterinary drugs for the millions of livestock distributed across the country. Going by recent research findings, NSAIDs for livestock that do not affect vultures are available and the challenge is to distribute them widely. Many vultures also die after feeding on carcasses of animals that were poisoned by people for revenge. An awareness campaign on the consequences of avoidable human-animal conflict can raise their survival chances.