Vultures near extinction, leaving diseases to flourish in their wake

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am

With their hunched shoulders, featherless heads and menacing, hooked beaks, India's vultures never attracted many admiring looks - until they started disappearing.

Twenty years ago, the birds were a common sight: circling above piles of stinking rubbish, perched on buildings, nestling in tall trees. No one wanted to watch as they tore spectacularly into dead cattle at carcass dumps, stripping them clean in minutes. But today, glimpsing a vulture in the wild in India is a bit like seeing a tiger.

In 1990, India had up to 40 million vultures. Today, there are about 10,000. With their numbers dropping 50 per cent a year, the birds are perilously close to extinction and their demise constitutes one of the most dramatic population crashes ever. Latest estimates calculate that only 200 of the rarest of the three endangered vulture species, the slender-billed, remain in the wild.

Although environmentalists and scientists around the world are gripped by this decline, the first people to notice something was amiss were villagers, who were revolted by the sight and scent of dead cows left to rot in the sun. In India, where few people eat beef, cow carcasses have always been disposed of by leaving them out for vultures, making the birds' absence impossible to miss. Scientists began to document the drop and were horrified by what they found.

One national park in Rajasthan had more than 350 breeding pairs of white-backed vultures in 1987. Nine years later, there were 150. By 1999 they had all disappeared. But it was not until 2003 that a cheap and common anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, was found to be the cause. Safe for humans and livestock, the drug causes organ failure in vultures.

The Bombay Natural History Society and the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) took quick action. They converted a vulture care centre in Pinjore, in the northern state of Haryana, into a captive breeding centre and set about lobbying the government to ban the drug.

Two years later, India banned the manufacture of diclofenac for use in cattle; Nepal and Pakistan, where a similar disaster was unfolding, did the same. Another drug that cured pain but did not kill vultures was developed. Although it is a little more expensive, it is growing cheaper as demand for it rises.

These steps are unlikely to save vultures, however. There is no law that comprehensively bans the manufacture and use of diclofenac and there is still plenty of diclofenac in the system, sold by vets and used by farmers. There are also reports that some companies are still making the drug.

With vulture numbers dropping so fast, the only hope lies with the Pinjore captive breeding programme, from which it is hoped healthy birds will be released when India is once again safe for them. The base has three giant aviaries, designed to house 25 pairs of the three endangered species, most of which were trapped as nestlings. Earlier this year, the centre's first chicks hatched - making the front pages of Indian newspapers. But days later, they died.

At a recent visit to the centre, Vibhu Prakash, who runs the programme, described the painstaking care with which the birds are observed and cared for. The centre keeps its own herd of goats, dozens of which are slaughtered, skinned and fed to the birds whole, twice a week. Visitors are banned lest they put the vultures off their food. Instead, they can watch the birds on a web camera, which is used to monitor them around the clock.

'I never wanted to study birds in captivity, but unfortunately I have to,' said Dr Prakash.

The Bombay Natural History Society is trying to establish another three centres in India. Its counterparts in Pakistan and Nepal may add one each. But in India finding the funding to establish and run breeding centres is only the first of several difficult steps in vulture preservation.

It is not easy to catch vulture chicks - something that must be done as soon as possible to prevent them being killed by contaminated carrion. Getting permission from state governments can be even more difficult. Since 2002, vultures have been a protected species, which, ironically, makes them harder to save. 'There's a lot of resistance to the connection between death and diclofenac,' said Dr Prakash.

The endangerment of any species has knock-on effects for its environment. But this is especially true of vultures, because of their uniquely crucial role in a system that produces millions of animal carcasses every year.

With no vultures to eat dead cows, India's population of wild dogs has flourished - and with them rabies. Public health officials also say rats are doing well out of the vultures' demise, raising worries about the diseases they spread, including bubonic plague. The leather and craft trades are also suffering, because vultures no longer clean the meat from the hide.

Another group affected by the death of vultures is the Parsis, the Zoroastrians who emigrated from Persia centuries ago. Parsis are forbidden to cremate or bury their dead; instead, they leave them on towers of silence, circular raised structures that allow birds of prey to eat the bodies.

There were hopes that a breeding centre could be established at Mumbai's tower of silence. But that hope has been dashed by fears that vultures could be infected by diclofenac traces in human bodies, for which it is difficult to test.

Dr Prakash estimates it will take at least 15 years for India to once again be safe for vultures. Or rather, he hopes it will. For this to happen, a total ban on diclofenac is necessary. And he must also be allowed to capture enough healthy vultures to make a viable captive population. 'If it doesn't work this time, it never will,' he warned.