Prof Saleem Ayaz Rather
Vultures are large carnivorous birds known for their scavenging nature. They have almost no feathers on its head or neck and eats the flesh of dead animals.
This is one of the few types of bird that is found distributed widely around the world, as vultures are found on every continent excluding the Antarctic and Australia and the islands that surround it. In 1980 there were up to 80 millions of white-rumped vultures (Gyps bengalensis) in India but today the population numbers only several thousands. In 1990 a sudden decrease in number of vultures was noted by Vibhu Prakash of Bombay Natural History Society who had monitored vulture population at Keoladeo National Park. As the decline accelerated the International Scientific community decided to investigate the reason of their disappearance. There were many difficulties to overcome for this study to become possible because vulture could not be legally euthanized for scientific study in India, and to locate a freshly dead animal was extremely difficult. After much deliberation and hard work on possible viral causes of decline the culprit was discovered by Dr. Lindsay Oaks and his team in 2003 and it was “diclofenac” which is a common Anti-Inflammatory Drug administered to livestock to treat the symptoms of inflammation, fever and pain associated with disease or wounds. This medicine was used in India since the 1990s.The drug proved fatal to the vultures. a vulture was exposed to a mortal dose of diclofenac if it atefrom caracass of an animal that had been treated with diclofenac and such vultures suffered kidney failure and visceral goat, which was usually fatal .As a result of this more than 97% of the vultures had disappeared from Indian skies in the past 20 years – the fatal decline ever recorded in the bird population any where in the world. The sudden collapse of natural animal disposal system in India had multiple consequences. The carcass formerly eaten by vultures rot in village fields leading to problems such as contaminated drinking water. Disappearance of vultures had allowed other animals such as rat and wild dog population to grow. These newly abundant scavengers were not as effective as a vulture because a vulture’s metabolism is a true dead end for pathogens but rats and dogs become carriers of pathogens. In India there are eighteen million wild dogs – the largest population of carnivorous in the world which had led to an increase in Leopards invading inhabited areas praying on feral dogs lead to conflict with human beings. After having found diclofenac as the main cause for the disappearance of the vultures, the drug was banned for veterinary use in India on March 11, 2006, Nepal followed suit in August 2006 and Pakistan shortly there after. A substitute drug “meloxicam” which had the same affect like that of diclofenac was developed and proposed after successful tests done on vultures in captivity proved that it was harmless for vultures. However, Diclofenac for human use was still being diverted to veterinary use through black market in certain parts of India as of 2009. Despite the vulture crisis Diclofenac remains available in other countries including many in Europe but a survey for the journal Oryx found that more than a third of 250 Indian pharmacists investigated were still selling diclofenac in several forms. Richard Cuthbert, the lead author and principal conservation scientist at UK’s Royal Society For Protection Of Birds said; ”the ban is still quite easy to avoid because human formulations are for sale in large vials which are clearly not intended for human use. Preventing misuse of human diclophenac remains the main challenge in halting the decline of threatened vultures. “When an animal dies it becomes a breeding ground for all sorts of pathogen,” said Vibhu Prakash of Bombay National History Society, thus affirming Cuthbert and other scientists who are unanimous on the subject.
The vultures feed upon the dead animals before bacteria and fungi could develop preventing the spread of rabies, anthrax and many other diseases. Three vulture species saw an unprecedented decline of 97% to 99.9% in 1992-2007 by ingesting diclofenac in cattle carcass. Among the three of India’s vulture species of genus “Gyps” – the long billed (Gyps indicus) and the slender billed (G tenurostris) had crashed by an astonishing 97% while the white rumped (G.bengalensis) the decline was even more catastrophic at 99.9% between 1992 and 2007 .This is the fastest decline of any bird species ever reported any where in the world. By 2000, the International Union for conservation of nature declared all the three species in its highest risk category – critically endangered. .This is just a step away from extinction, unless urgent action is taken for its revival. Vultures once known as strong flying machines are crying for conservative measures. Today foul smell is felt on the sides of the roads which is that of dead animals since the disposal machines are not there to dispose of the bodies as a result this has given birth to many diseases. Vultures play a critical role in the ecosystem and their absence has severely affected the health and cleanliness in the country side and caused unnatural changes in the natural food chain.
Vultures are able to keep the environment clean free from contagious diseases. By ridding the ground of dead animals. Vultures prevent the disease from spreading to human beings. Therefore there is a need of a massive media campaign, raising of awareness of plight of vultures and their role in our ecosystems, and their benefit to human beings. Joint covert operations with Government and local conservation agencies will help ensure that no shop sells any illegally produced diclofenac.
Steps taken by the Government to protect Vultures include
Two workshops were organized in consultation with scientists in New Delhi in September 2000 and April 2004 to work out Comprehensive strategies for conservation of vultures.
Bombay Natural history society in collaboration with Haryana State Forest Department has taken up a project on conservation and breeding of vultures. In this connection a vulture captive care facility has been established at Panchkula.
Ministry of Health has issued Gazette notification dated 04-07-2008 Prohibiting manufacture of Diclofenac for animal use and vide notification dated 17-07-2015 restricting packaging of multi dose vials of diclofenac to single dose.
The State Governments have been asked to setup vulture care centers for conservation of three species of vultures. The Govt. of India has formulated Action Plan (2006) 0n vulture conservation. The action plan provides for strategies, actions for containing decline of vulture population through ex situ, in situ vulture conservation. Captive breeding centers, zoos at Bhopal, Bhubaneshwar, Junagarh and Hyderabad have also been setup through Central Zoo Authority. The Ministry has also taken initiative to strengthen the mass education and awareness for vulture conservation.
(The author is Prof. Head Deptt of Zoology, Govt Degree College, Thannamandi, Rajouri)