India is home to three species of Vultures, all of whom were nearly wiped out when the drug Diclofenac was introduced to protect cattle from disease in 1992. The drug causes renal failure in the birds after they feed on the carcasses of dead livestock, and the harm it has done is catastrophic.
Over 99 percent of the Oriental white-backed vulture population was killed by Diclofenac. The long-billed vulture and slender-billed vulture both lost 97 per cent of their numbers. Literally millions of birds were killed and scientists warned all three species would be wiped out unless the drug was banned and breeding centers were established to rebuild the decimated flocks.
Making matters worse, the Indian government was slow to respond, and Diclofenac wasn’t banned until 2006. Three breeding centers were built to hatch and raise young birds, but it is only a beginning. Although the program has seen some success, scientists warn it is too soon to tell if the three species can be saved.
Sadly, profit is often the primary concern and many farmers simply switched to a human form of the drug instead of using a safer, but more costly, alternative. The Indian government reacted by warning drug companies not to sell the veterinary version of the drug to farmers and to label the human version “not for veterinary use.” Misuse of the drug after re-labeling could lead to criminal prosecution, but India is a huge country, and it will take years before existing supply of the drug disappears from use.
Now, after two decades of hard work by Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Bombay Natural History Society, the death rate of the great birds has begun to decrease and there is even a slight increase in their population. But the experts warn that the battle is far from over and will take a Herculean effort by farmers, the Indian government, and avian specialists if the birds are to have any chance of recovery.
Chris Bowden, head of the RSPB’s Vulture Recovery Program, spoke about the need to save the vultures:
“Vultures are critical to the way of life for millions of people in India … Vultures need immediate action from across the board to stop vets using Diclofenac and to support the captive breeding programs that are so badly needed to prevent the extinction of these fine birds.”
While vultures have earned an unsavory reputation for their feeding habits, they serve an important function in the control of disease in the rural areas of India, and they are magnificent creatures. It is hoped the Indian government will be successful in their attempts to save these ancient and noble birds.