In 1997, if a group of bird watchers or ornithologists would spot a wideback vulture, they would disinterestedly walk away. These indigenous vultures were so common, that it would barely be counted as a ‘rare’ spotting. In ten years, the tables have turned. Within a decade, their numbers dwindled by a drastic 97%, taking them close to extinction.
“The decline in the number of vultures is faster than that of the Dodo,” explains Dr Percy Erach Avari, Assistant Professor at Bombay Veterinary College. The Dodo was a Mauritian flightless bird which was recklessly hunted down by Dutch sailors. Within a span of around 60 years, the Dodo was extinct, even as its loss still affects the ecosystem.
India has nine species of vultures and out of them five belong to the Gyps species. Apart from wideback vultures, Himalayan griffon, long billed vulture, slender billed vulture and Eurasian griffon are a part of the species. These scavengers are nature’s cleaners as they can consume large amount of meat, visceral organs and muscle, keeping diseases from spreading.
Who’s hunting ‘em?
If not conquerors, who is responsible for the death of these obligate scavengers, who do not hunt but eat only dead animals? The answer is medication which is passed along the food chain. Since vultures eat only the dead, their food mainly consists of cattle carcasses. And, in India cattle is treated with Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug. It is a popular post-operative drug and also used for fevers et cetera.
The remnants of Diclofenac is passed on to vultures, which cause kidney failure in them. Most of these deaths are known to have occurred when cattle carcasses were consumed within 3-4 days of administering the drug. Diclofenac was identified as the vulture killer as 75% of dead vultures suffered from visceral gout, and all of them had Diclofenac residue in their tissue.
“This strong correlation established that at least 75% of the vulture population had died of diclofenac poisoning and this was the major cause of decline. Diclofenac as the major cause of vulture mortality was first established in 2003-04 by The Peregrine Fund, a U. S. based NGO, working in Pakistan,” says a page on vulture conservation by Haryana Forest Department.
After the Ban
The Indian government had promptly banned veterinary use of Diclofenac in 2006. However, this ban is known to be flouted as vets continue to prescribe the drug which is available for human usage; thereby affecting the population of vultures.
Dr Avari has been tirelessly working with advocacy groups and regularly speaks at vet conventions, and campaigns for the usage of vulture-safe drugs. Conservation experts have come up with a five-point programme to ensure that our vultures continue to fly high.
“The first is to discontinue use of Diclofenac, and then provide a safe alternative. We also want to 25 pairs of each of these species to be reared and bred at six centers across the country. After the environment is safe from the drug, they can be released back into the skies,” explains Dr Avari.
Katya Naidu was a former business journalist who changed tracks to chug along her real passion, pets and parenting.