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Breeding revives fortunes of India’s rare vultures

Indian conservationists have successfully bred a rare species of vulture, brought near to extinction by a drug used to treat cattle but which is highly toxic to the scavenging birds.

Eighteen slender-billed vultures, the rarest of three endangered species living in India, were caught in Assam and used to start breeding programmes late last year in Haryana and West Bengal.

Since December, the captive population has soared to 78 birds with some having been bred and more caught in the wild.

They are being kept in aviaries at the two centres, where their health is monitored and the adults are fed three kilograms of freshly slaughtered goat twice a week.

Conservationists aim to rear at least 200 vultures over the next few years, and introduce them back into their original habitats once the areas are free of diclofenac, the anti-inflammatory drug responsible for their decline. India banned the drug in May.

“The ban on diclofenac might take a few years to be implemented effectively,” said Vibhu Prakash, scientist at the Bombay Natural History Society’s vulture conservation project, which is co-ordinating the breeding. “Until then, the vulture population will continue to decline at an alarming rate.”

“Bringing as many vultures into captivity as possible is the best way to save them from going extinct,” he said.

Vultures fulfill a vital role, stripping down animal carcasses that would otherwise slowly rot and attract disease-spreading feral dogs and vermin.

But populations of South Asia’s Oriental white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed vultures have plummeted more than 97 percent from a population of about 40 million in the 1980s, largely due, scientists say, to the widespread use of the drug in cattle, which causes fatal liver damage in vultures.

“The killer drug will be phased out by October in India and the coming years are crucial for vulture conservation,” Anwaruddin Choudhury, co-ordinator of Indian Bird Conservation Network in Assam, told Reuters.

Experts worry that without an international ban on diclofenac, the drug may still make its way to India despite the availability of a safe alternative.

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