Conservation news

Perched on the precipice: India’s vultures threatened by E.U. sale of killer drug

Poisoned by cattle carcasses treated with Diclofenac, India’s vultures died by the millions in the 1990s. A captive breeding program is helping to save the once-ubiquitous birds, but the very drug that drove India’s vultures to the precipice of extinction has been given a green light in Italy and Spain.

Driving through an idyllic piece of forest, passing a majestic fig tree, we reach the renowned vulture breeding station on a small field road. It is situated in Pinjore in the northern Indian state of Haryana at the Himalayan foothills. Dr. Vibhu Prakash has been expecting us and walks toward us from the gate. Working as an ornithologist and Deputy Director for the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), his knowledge of vultures of India is nearly unparalleled. Data from his doctoral thesis provided the first clear evidence for the decline of these majestic birds while the catastrophe was looming.

Three of the world’s rarest vulture species are bred and raised at the station, which is led by Dr. Prakash, as part of a reintroduction program. White-backed (Gyps bengalensis), Indian (Gyps indicus) and slender-billed (Gyps tenuirostris) vultures are all listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. However, in the 1980s they were still so common that India’s ornithologists tended to pay them little heed during surveys, focusing instead on rarer species. The white-backed vulture occurred by the millions and had been considered the most common vulture in the world. But in the past few decades it has declined by more than 99 percent, while Indian and slender-billed vultures declined by more than 97 percent.

India’s vultures experienced a steep decline due to Diclofenac poisoning. Photo by Rajat Bhargava of vultures of the Gyps genus at Soheldev Wildlife Sanctuary.

The problem, it turned out, was a drug called Diclofenac, which “kills the vultures in slightest concentrations, ” Dr. Prakash says. “They die painfully from renal failure.”

The ingredient is used in a drug introduced to the Indian market as a painkiller and antinflammatory drug for livestock. However, it took years before Diclofenac was identified as the cause of their precipitous decline, with a viral disease suspected at first.

A small number of vultures still breed on these cliffs, one of the last populations in this area of South India near Bangalore. Photo by Morgan Erickson-Davis.

When the cause was finally identified in 2004, conservationists instantly launched an emergency plan to save the vultures. Diclofenac was subsequently banned in veterinary medicine starting in 2006. However, while the drug is no longer available in large quantities, it is still sold for use in human medicine and, on occasion, illegally used to treat cattle. A slight rebound in remaining vulture populations is becoming apparent.

There are enormous numbers of cattle in India that, due to religious reasons, are usually not eaten by people. When they die, they are often left to lie where they fall, and their carcasses nourish an entire guild of scavengers. Once, when vultures were still common, up to 200 were observed gathering at one carcass.

Diclofenac: livestock painkiller, vulture poison

Vulture decline has brought with it other negative effects. Fewer vultures mean more resources for other scavengers; dogs experienced a population boom, raising fears of rabies. Without vultures, carcasses remain laying around for a longer time, presenting a sanitary risk for people and animals.

Today, because of their very low numbers, vultures are having a harder time gaining access to carcasses.

“When vultures were still common they chased the dogs away, today the dogs chase the vultures away,” said ornithologist Rajat Bhargava, who has observed birds around his home near Delhi for decades. Without strength in numbers, vultures are now more often waiting until dogs finish their meals. Sometimes, when very few vultures occur at a carcass, even crows can chase them off.

Small numbers of vultures are unable to compete with dogs for carcasses. Photo by Rajat Bhargava.

Bone traders raised alarm

The “work” done by the vultures once brought an important source of income to the poorest of rural people. When they found a carcass, bone traders would remove the skin and lay the body out for the birds to take the flesh and leave the bones neat and bare. The traders then collected the dried bones and sold them to factories that produce fertilizer and gelatin.

When the vultures disappeared, the traders or factory staff had to take on the extra job of removing the flesh, which lowered their total earnings. Because of their fading income, bone traders were in fact the first people who noticed and complained about the missing vultures. A local newspaper reported the issue, bringing it to the attention of India’s bird conservationists.

Cattle carcasses were once picked clean by once-common vultures. Now, people must work to strip off the flesh in order to sell them to industries that use bones in their products. Photo by Rajat Bhargava of white-backed (mostly juveniles) and Himalayan griffon vultures

Vultures are extremely slow breeders and naturally very long-lived, which is why the conservation breeding program is a pronouncedly long-term project. The vultures start breeding at five to six years of age and normally lay no more than one egg per year.

Chicks of India’s three vulture species are now being raised in Pinjore and at two smaller breeding stations run by BNHS, which is the Indian partner of the conservation organization BirdLife International. Five more breeding stations are run by the government.

Contact with humans is restricted whenever possible in order to increase chances for a successful reintroduction into the wild. Several aviaries have been established in the Pinjore breeding station for raising young vultures and also for the care of injured birds brought in from the wild. In three large flight aviaries, all around 30 meters (100 feet) long, older juveniles and adult vultures have space to train their huge wings. A robust synthetic net confines these large aviaries on the top. If all goes well, the young vultures will someday soar enormous distances while looking for carcasses in the wild.

In order to increase the number of offspring, workers encourage the breeding pairs at the station to lay a second egg by removing their first egg, which is then hatched in an incubator. However, it takes three weeks for a hen to lay a second egg.

Long-billed and white-backed vulture nestlings huddle together at a captive breeding facility run by the Bombay Natural History Society. Photo by Nikita Prakash.

The conservationists place video cameras to survey the nesting birds in the breeding station while avoiding disturbing them. As an added benefit, the cameras allow them to study the birds’ breeding behavior. Vultures are extremely caring parents and also very socially tolerant birds, according to Dr. Prakash. In one scene captured by the nest cameras, a mother vulture helps her chick hatch from its egg. Alerted by calling from within the egg, she gently peels away broken parts of the shell.

New danger for European vultures

The banning of Diclofenac in 2006 has been a huge boon for India’s vultures. Indeed, a study published recently in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (B) found that vulture death due to ingestion of contaminated meat fell by more than a third between 2005 and 2009.

However, the reason behind India’s vulture catastrophe has apparently remained ignored by European policy. Last year, the European Union approved use of Diclofenac for cattle in Spain and Italy. About 80 percent of European vultures live in Spain and they are threatened by food shortage, amongst other issues. For this reason, Spain has loosened disposal regulations for livestock carcasses. Diclofenac may now become a deadly danger for European vultures, despite the fact that a vulture-safe alternative medication, Meloxicam, is also on the market.

Griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) scavenge a red deer carcass in Spain. Photo by Mario Modesto Mata.

Conservationists have rallied against the E.U.’s decision, which allows the large-scale manufacture and use of Diclofenac and other non-steroidal anti-imflammatory drugs known to be deadly to vultures. In response, the European Commission has asked the European Medicines Agency to assess the risk posed by the drug to Europe’s scavenging raptors. They will present their findings later this month.

Conservationists worry the use of Diclofenac in Europe may undermine conservation work in India.

“The biggest problem for us in India and Nepal is that it is very hard to ask for Diclofenac to remain banned, and to only be sold in small vials so it can’t be used for veterinary use, when it is licensed in Europe,” said Jemima Parry-Jones from UK-based International Centre for Birds of Prey, who is involved in the conservation project. “This cuts the ground out from under our feet.”

To learn more about the problems facing India’s vultures, visit Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) and their petition to ban Diclofenac in Europe.

India’s vultures are examples of Old World vultures, which are not closely related to New World vultures. In fact, some scientists group the latter group with storks. Unlike New World vultures that are able to locate carcasses by their extraordinary sense of smell, Old World vultures find food by sight. Photo by Rajat Bhargava.

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