Sunday, January 4, 2009

Vanishing Species - The Indian Vultures

An Article by Mohan Pai
The Indian Vultures
‘God’s own incinerators’
- Dr. Salim Ali

Indian white-rumped vulture G. Bengalensis

The Vultures are not gathering any more!

They are about to become extinct!

The White backed vulture population was estimated at 30 million birds in 1992. Today, it is a mere 11,000 birds and falling.

Diclofenac poisoning

The Indian Vulture, Gyps indicus and the Indian White-rumped Vulture, G. bengalensis species have been almost wiped out (a decline of 99%–97% in population in Pakistan & India) and the cause of this has been identified as poisoning caused by the veterinary drug diclofenac. Diclofenac is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) and when given to working animals it can reduce joint pain and so keep them working for longer. The drug is believed to be swallowed by vultures with the flesh of dead cattle which were given diclofenac in the last days of life. Diclofenac causes kidney failure in several species of Vultures. In March 2005 the Indian Government announced its support for a ban on the veterinary use of diclofenac. Another NSAID, meloxicam, has been found to be harmless to vultures and should prove to be an acceptable substitute for diclofenac. In March 2006 diclofenac was still being used for animals throughout India and the changes in Indian legislation are awaited. When meloxicam production is increased it is hoped that it will be as cheap as diclofenac.

The drug is now proven to have been responsible for the near-total collapse of three species of vulture in south Asia – White-rumped Gyps bengalensis, Indian G. indicus and Slender-billed G. tenuirostris. The species are already locally extinct in several parts of the region, but were formerly among the commonest large birds of prey in the world. Without further concerted conservation efforts, we could soon be witnessing one of the most dramatic bird extinctions since the previously abundant Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius was lost at the beginning of the twentieth century.

A virus was the initial suspect for the disappearance of South Asia's griffon vultures.Then, in 2004, US scientists working in Pakistan - which, unlike India, allowed vulture tissue to be taken out of the country for analysis - discovered that the birds were being poisoned by feeding on the carcasses of cattle that had been treated with the painkiller diclofenac. The drug, commonly used to treat sick cattle, proved to be highly toxic to vultures' kidneys. Cheap imports: Cheap veterinary diclofenac is imported from China, and the human formulation is also used to treat cattle.

Declining vulture numbers have triggered serious public health problems. Rotting carrion lies around for days in towns and villages across India, and is believed to be spreading communicable infections like tuberculosis, anthrax and foot-and-mouth disease. There has definitely been an "exponential" rise in the number of stray dogs that feed on rotting flesh and spread rabies, experts add. Their concern is high because more than 20,000 Indians die of rabies each year, the highest rate in the world. Carrion-eating dogs can become a major human problem. In Bikaner, Rajasthan, for instance, over 1,000 vicious dogs inhabited a large carrion dumping ground. This poses a serious threat to the local population, many of whom they regularly attack.

A few vultures can efficiently dispose of a cow carcass within minutes, a fact that is important to the followers of the Zoroastrian religion. India's small Parsee community in Mumbai and Kolkata have been adversely affected by the declining vulture population because, until a decade ago, the birds would scavenge their dead in the secluded 'Towers of Silence' in the heart of the city, in keeping with ancient Zoroastrian tradition. The Parsees cannot cremate, bury or submerge their dead in water because they consider a corpse impure, and their Zoroastrian faith does not permit them to defile the elements with it. British expertise in breeding vultures in captivity for the Parsees has been called off, following differences within the orthodox community that had erected solar reflectors to hasten the decomposition of human bodies given the 'lack' of vultures.

Pic - Courtsey, Nature Club Surat

The most efficient scavengers in the world are crashing out of the sky to their extinction.

The staggering decline in the number of Indian vultures due to continued use of drugs in livestock means that the bird could be extinct within a decade.

Bombay Natural History Society’s study across India, Pakistan and Nepal showed that overall numbers of Asian vultures are declining by 50 per cent a year, the fastest decline ever in a bird species.

The White backed vulture has collapsed from about 30 million birds in the early 90s to about 11,000 birds today.The Slender-billed and Long-billed vultures are both down about 97 per cent over the same period.

A single dead cow that has diclofenac in its system is enough to wipe out an entire flock.The vanishing vultures would leave the way open for scavengers such as feral dogs and rats creating dangerous health problems for humans.

Conservation measures

The Indian government has now passed a bill banning the manufacture of the veterinary drug diclofenac that has caused the rapid population decline across the Indian Subcontinent; their aim was to phase out its use by late 2005, although it was still in widespread use in 2007 and is likely to remain so for several years. Similar laws banning import and manufacture of diclofenac are now in place in Nepal and Pakistan. Efforts to replace diclofenac with a suitable alternative are ongoing; drug companies have now developed meloxicam, an alternative to diclofenac. The Report of the International South Asian Vulture Recovery Plan Workshop in 2004 gave a comprehensive list of recommendations including establishing a minimum of three captive breeding centres each capable of holding 25 pairs. Captive breeding efforts are ongoing and met with success when two White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis chicks hatched in early 2007 at a breeding centre in Pinjore, Haryana; similar successes are hoped for in Long-billed Vulture. The centre is part of a captive breeding programme established by the RSPB and Bombay Natural History Society. NGOs like Nature Club Surat have also launched Vulture Conservation programmes.

In India there are eight species of vultures, the commonest being the Indian Scavenger which is found practically all over the country. All species prey on mammals for food.However, over the years, a number of species like the Indian King, Long-Billed Griffon, India Fulvous, Asian White-rumped and the Himalayan Griffon, which inhabited the Himalayas but were also seen around north India, have become a rare sight these days. Many have simply vanished and may only be found in high mountain ranges.

Pic - Courtsey, Nature Club Surat

Different species of Indian vultures in Salim Ali's The Book of Indian Birds:
White-backed Vulture [Gyps bengalensis]. The most common of all vultures found in cities near dumps and slaughter houses. This is one of the endangered species.

Indian King Vulture [Gyps calvus]: Black vulture with scarlet neck. It's popultion is dwindling sharply in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Cinereous vulture [Aegypius monachus]: Big blackish brown vulture with pinkish neck. A tree nesting variety. Spotted in Assam, Himalayas, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Kerala. Gradually becoming rare.

Indian Long-billed Griffon [Gyps indicus]: A common Himalayan vulture covered with brownish hair life feathers. It's sightings have reduced considerably in Gwalior, Pachmarhi, Delhi, Agra, Bareilly, Jodhpur and several areas in north-east India.

Indian Griffon [Gyps fulvus] Massive brown vulture with head covered with whitish-yellow hair. A common sight in cities but now gradually disappearing.

White Indian Scavenger [Neophron percnopterus]: This is a rare vulture. White in clolour and somewhat like a kite. Usually found in drier areas of India. It's polulation has decreased alarmingly in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.

References: Wikipedia, Rahul Bedi, New Scientist, BirdLife International.

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