Drug threatens South Asia's vultures

Three vulture species in South Asia face imminent extinction due to a powerful drug that makes livestock carcasses fatal for the scavenging birds, ornithologists at a world conference on birds said.

“There has been an overall 95% decline in the population of the three species during the past eight years” in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan, Debbie Paine, of the British chapter of Birdlife International, said from the port city of Durban.

The birds’ numbers have reduced from “tens of millions to tens of thousands”, she said, adding: “If nothing is done on a war-footing there will soon be no vultures in South Asia.”

Experts said the main reason is the use of the drug diclofenac for treating cattle and other livestock.

The threatened species include the white-rumped vulture, the slender-billed vulture and the Indian vulture, they said.

Aleem Khan from the Ornithological Society of Pakistan said the drug is not generally used on livestock in other parts of the world.

“Eight-five percent of the mortality rate of vultures, according to studies carried out by us, has been traced to this drug,” he said.

“It is an anti-inflammatory drug, which remains in the body of animals treated for 90 hours. If the animal happens to die and vultures feed on the carrion in that time limit, they die mainly due to kidney failure as they are very sensitive to diclofenac.

“Eighty percent of the vulture deaths in the wild have been traced to renal failure, gout and heart attacks induced by high levels of uric acid,” he said.

“Other causes like pesticide and heavy metal contamination and the persecution of vultures near airports that have experienced several bird hits account for a fraction of the deaths,” he said.

“New research has shown that there can be a population fall of 30% a year if less than one in 200 carcasses available to vultures contain lethal amounts of diclofenac.”

“Up to 200 vultures can feed on the carcass of a single big buffalo or a camel,” Khan said.

Adrian Long from Birdlife International said the threat of extinction is the greatest since the “extinction of passenger pigeons in the United States in the [past] 150 years”.

Paine said bird-watching societies in the region have appealed to their respective governments to control the use of the drug, adding their warnings have been noted.

She said India poses a particular problem for vultures as the carcasses of cattle are left to rot since the cow and buffalo meat are taboo to the country’s Hindu-majority population.

The sharp decline in the vulture population has been noticed in India for a few years, posing a slew of problems.

The Parsis—descendants of Iranian settlers who came to India centuries ago—now have problems disposing of their dead in the traditional fashion by leaving them for vultures in so-called “towers of silence”.

The fall in the vulture population in the western Indian port city of Bombay, where most of India’s Parsi community are based, has caused concern in the community.

Paine said the South Asian governments are trying to protect the indigenous vultures by “captive breeding” but underlined that it will take time to see the effects because vultures attain sexual maturity only after five years.

She hailed an initiative undertaken in the northern Indian state of Haryana, where the local government has set up what she called “Asia’s first vulture care centre” to tend to sick birds.

She said the facility near the town of Pinjore, which opened in February last year, has now expanded its programme to captive breeding.—Sapa-AFP

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