Indian vultures may be gone in 10 years


May 2, 2008

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Despite a 2006 ban on veterinary diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug for cattle, vultures are fast vanishing from India. So quick is the decline in numbers that experts say three species could be extinct in less than 10 years.

The oriental white-backed vulture, once thought to be the commonest bird of prey in the world, has lost 99.9% of its population since 1992, according to a study by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). This makes it the fastest declining wild bird in history, a demise more rapid than that of the dodo. Numbers of long-billed and slender-billed vultures have together fallen by almost 97% in the same period.

Scientists say this is because diclofenac, which causes kidney failure in these birds, is still in use in the country.

“It’s been over two years since the ban but there is still a lot of old stock. Also, a version of diclofenac developed for human use is being utilised by farmers to treat livestock. Because it’s an effective drug, vets and farmers are just buying it from pharmacies for use. When vultures feed on dead cattle that have been administered this drug, they die,” says Vibhu Prakash of BNHS who led the study with colleagues from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

He and other scientists counted vultures in northern and central India between March and June last year. They surveyed these birds from vehicles along 18,900 km stretch of roads.

Their study estimates that the number of oriental white-backed vultures is down to 11,000 as compared to around 30 million across northern India in the early 1990s. Population of long-billed and slender-billed vultures has dropped to around 45,000 and 1,000 birds respectively.

“All three species could be down to a few hundred birds or less across the whole country and thus become functionally extinct in less than a decade. It is imperative that diclofenac is removed completely from use in livestock,” the report states.

Co-author Dr Andrew Cunningham from the Zoological Society of London says the removal of vultures from the Indian ecosystem was having dramatic impacts on the environment. “The white-backed vulture was the primary scavenger. Piles of carcasses aren’t being eaten, increasing risk of contamination of water bodies. Other scavengers such as rats and feral dogs are also moving in,” he says.

Besides the impact on the eco-system, declining numbers are also a matter of concern for the Parsi community who leave their dead out in the open to be consumed by vultures. Scientists now say captive breeding might be the last hope. One of India’s three captive breeding centres recently enjoyed its first success when two oriental white-backed vulture chicks were born.

Original article here.