The Indian government has a big job on its hands. It is accused today of ‘overseeing’ the decline of tigers. Another iconic creature, the vulture, is also on the brink of extinction and the government is now under pressure to do more to help.
Three species of vulture have crashed in number by 99 per cent in the last 15 years. Yes, 99 per cent – they are close to oblivion. A paper being published soon will detail even greater declines more recently. India is a hair’s breadth away from a national catastrophe. These birds are crucial to the health and wellbeing of millions of its people.
Vultures clean carcasses quicker and better than anything else. That used to mean that farmers could leave the bodies of dead livestock on carcass dumps knowing they would be cleared within hours, assured that there was no risk of disease from the remnants of putrid flesh, confident that the bone collectors and leather tanners dependent on those carcasses for their livelihoods were safe.
It doesn’t mean that any more. Too few vultures mean carcass cleaning is being left to dogs and rats, both of which have soared in number. The risk of rabies and other disease has vastly increased. Those who used to rely on clean bones and sparkling hides can do so no more.
The Parsi community, which uses sky burials to dispose of its dead, is in trouble too. Vultures would consume bodies placed for that purpose on top of Towers of Silence. Those bodies fester now because the vultures don’t come. Other means of disposal are out of the question because the Parsis believe those methods pollute sacred land and water.
vultures.jpgManufacture of the livestock drug diclofenac, which is responsible for the vultures’ demise, is now banned in India, Pakistan and Nepal. But there are still thousands, perhaps millions, of rural area where diclofenac is still on sale.
A replacement, meloxicam, is just as good a treatment and causes no harm to vultures.
The challenge for the Indian government is to ensure meloxicam is available just as readily as diclofenac, at the same price to farmers and in the same quantities. Without this, and without this quickly, India will lose its vultures for good.
The problem of diclofenac
Vultures are being found sick and dead across India and in neighbouring Pakistan and Nepal.
Most cattle in India are left to die naturally, with their carcasses left in the open, and vultures have played an important role in cleaning them up.
Vultures that eat meat from carcasses containing diclofenac quickly die from kidney failure and gout. It has been shown that, even if less than 1% of animal carcasses contain lethal levels of the drug, it is enough to have caused the almost total collapse of vulture numbers.
Vultures can reduce the carcass of a cow to a pile of bones in an hour, but if it contains sufficient diclofenac, the vultures will die soon afterwards.
We have been working with our BirdLife Partner in India, the Bombay Natural History Society, and the Zoological Society of London, to confirm that the drug is the major cause of declines in India and Nepal.
The effects of diclofenac on birds of prey remind us of the devastating impact of DDT on birds worldwide. It took years for governments to remove DDT and associated chemicals from use.
Diclofenac is so devastating that we do not have years if the vultures of India are to be saved. And we must ensure that the vultures of Europe, Africa and other parts of the world don’t face the same threats.
Original article here