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Vanishing Gyps Vultures : Can We Save Them?

Vanishing Gyps Vultures : Can We Save Them?

The veterinary drug Diclofenac is responsible for the decline of three Gyps species: Long-Billed Vulture, White-Rumped Vulture, and Slender-Billed Vulture. It is thought that their numbers are declining faster than Dodo.

White-Rumped Vulture
Photograph © Andy and Gill Swash
White-Rumped Vulture. Image ©Andy and Gill Swash

By Mithu Das   January 22, 2012

In a research paper published in December 1999 in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Vibhu Prakash has first reported that there has been a crash in population of Gyps vultures in the Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan. Dr. Prakash recorded a sharp decline of 96 per cent in the population of white-rumped vulture and 97 per cent in long-billed vulture, between 1985–1998. 'The exact cause of the population crash is not clear,' Dr. Prakash said. 'Cirumstantial evidence suggests pesticide contamination to be the major cause of decline.'

In the year 2000, head-drooping behaviour were seen in Gyps bengalensis and reports had come from Punjab province (Pakistan) as well as from other parts of India about the 'mass deaths' of vultures. In the same year a survey report published by BNHS showed a sharp decline of 90 per cent of vulture populations in north and central India. Similar reports had also come from Nepal. During 2001–2002, 45 white-rumped vultures were found dead in eastern Nepal.

At first scientist thought it was an infectious disease which were killing the vultures. But, after extensive research done by Pregrine Fund and Ornithological Society of Pakisthan revealed that a widely used veterinary drug name Diclofenac is responsible for mass deaths of vultures. Their research showed vultures die of kidney failure after they eat the carcasses of livestock which have treated with diclofenac.

Long-Billed Vulture
Long-Billed Vulture. Image ©Sudipto Roy.

In the year 2006, India, Nepal and Pakistan banned on diclofenac. To recover the population and bring the vultures back into wild, captive breeding programme has been introduced. Presently, there are three captive breeding centres in India which are run by BNHS and funded by Darwin Initiatives, Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds (RSPB), Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund and Rufford Foundation. Also, there is one captive breeding centre in Pakistan and one in Nepal.

'Captive breeding is successful in India,' writes BNHS on their website. 'Currently 271 vultures of three Gyps species are housed in three captive breeding centres—at Pinjore in Haryana, Rjabhat Khowa in West Bengal and Rani in Assam. In 2011, at least 18 vulture chicks have fledged and are growing.' The purpose of these captive breeding centres are to release all the vultures in 10 to 15 years after diclofenac had completely been removed.

Unfortunately, despite the ban on veterinary diclofenac in 2006, the drug is still being used in human formulations. Some people in India illegally use human formulated diclofenac to treat their livestock. During 2007–2010, the RSPB scientist Dr. Richard Cuthbert and their colleagues have surveyed 250 pharmacies in 11 Indian states. They found 12 types of NSAID and 42 brands of diclofenac sold by pharmacies. The final report of their survey published in the Oryx (45: 420-426). 'Nine brands of diclofenac were found which were manufactured after the 2006 ban, all for veterinary use. Diclofenac and Ketoprofen (both toxic to vultures) were recorded in 36 and 29 per cent of pharmacies surveyed.' The good news was meloxicam—a safe alternative to diclofenac—was found as widely used NSAID presented 70 percent of pharmacies. Meloxicam has been used for veterinary purposes since diclofenac was banned in 2006.

In August 2008, Indian Government placed additional restrictions prohibiting the manufacture, sale and distribution of diclofenac. Unfortunately, despite the restrictions, some manufacturers are still making bolus forms of diclofenac. There are 42 brands of diclofenac sold in India for human use. Generally, smaller dose rate are used for human treatment while animals need higher dose. The diclofenac sold in India are available in large veterinary-sized vial. These bigger bottles are manufactured for human use but sold for veterinary treatment. The Indian Government should ban on bigger bottles of diclofenac as well as take immediate action against pharmaceutical companies who are illegally manufacturing them.

Slender-billed Vulture photographed by Andy and Gill Swash
Slender-billed Vulture. Image ©Andy and Gill Swash.

'Until diclofenac is removed from the environment,' said Chris Bowden, the RSPB's head of the vulture programme. 'We cannot guarantee the birds have any future in the wild.'

Dr. Asad Rahmani, Director of the BNHS said, 'Complete removal of diclofenac from vulture food is the single most important action needed to save vultures. Human formulations are still being sold by some irresponsible companies in large veterinary-sized vials and these bigger bottles must be outlawed.'

For a subcontinent where religious and cultural mores restrict the handling of the dead, human and animal alike—Muslims won't eat an animal that hasn't been killed according to halal; Hindus won't consume cows under any circumstances—vultures were a natural and efficient disposal system. Meera Subramanian

Before 1990, vultures were the most common birds of the Indian subcontinent, counted in the tens of millions. They were found everywhere—in cities, towns, villages, near slaughterhouses, carcass dumps, cultivated area, railway tracks and roadsides. Vultures are efficient scavengers and roam the countryside in search of food or dead animals. They help keep our environment clean.

Vultures clean the carcass dumps very effectively. In India, as well as in other parts of south-east Asia, people dispose carcasses of animals on the outskirts of villages or at large municipal dumps. Vultures regularly clean these carcass dumps and keep the environment clean and disease-free. Now, as the vultures have gone, these carcass dumps are occupied by feral dogs. In the early 1980s there were 17–18 million feral dogs in India. Now their number reached more than 30 million. Feral dogs spread rabies and often attacks human. In India there are several cases of children and adults attacked and killed by feral dogs.

Two pairs of White-rumped Vultures sitting on a tree. Photographed by Vasanthan Panchavarnam
Two paires of White-rumped Vultures sitting on a tree. Image ©Vasanthan Panchavarnam.

Vultures play an important role in the Zoroastrian Parsi community. Zoroastrian Parsis, who live in India, neither burn their dead nor bury; instead they place their dead in the Tower of Silence for vultures to consume. Now as vultures have vanished, Zoroastrian Parsis are facing trouble to deal with their dead.

As recently as 20 years ago, there were 100 to 160 million vultures in India. Today, their numbers remain only few thousands. Since 1990—after veterinary diclofena introduced in India and Pakistan—the number of vulture population dropped by 99 per cent. A survey report showed that between 2000–2007, the average annual decline of White-rumped vulture was 43 per cent and Long-billed and Slender-billed vulture was over 16 per cent. Now, there are only 2500–10,000 white-rumped vultures survive and the equal number of slender-billed vulture. It is thought that the number of long-billed vultures are now 45000.

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