This International Vulture Day, There Is Some Great News for Vultures in India

Last week, India took an important step towards saving some critically endangered vulture species from extinction. It banned the use of large doses of diclonefac, a drug that is given to cattle but which kills vultures when they eat the animal carcasses. The good news came just ahead of International Vulture Day, which is celebrated today to create awareness about this ecologically vital group of birds that face a range of threats in many parts of the world.

Vultures are birds of prey that are very dependent on human activities, particularly in India. The Hindu culture is favourable to vultures because Hindus do not eat beef. Therefore, vultures have been India’s natural animal disposal system for years, eating the carcasses of dead cows and buffaloes and keeping the cities and countryside clean.

With the massive decline in the population of vultures, some say the fastest of any bird species in recorded history, there has been an explosion of rats and wild dogs, the spread of diseases like anthrax, rabies and plague, and the threat of a huge public health crisis.

The Parsi community in Mumbai, which used to place the bodies of the deceased in the Tower of Silence, to be consumed by vultures and liberate the soul to go to heaven, has been forced to change its customary practice for the sake of hygiene.

According to the Scientific American, “About 49 million vultures have died over the past 20 years, victims of renal failure caused by the drug (diclofenac). The loss of these admittedly unattractive carrion eaters has had cascading effects on India’s ecosystem. Without the birds to eat dead animals diseases have increased, feral dog populations have grown and even one religion that depended on vultures to consume their fallen believers has suffered.”

Arjun Srivathsa is a wildlife biologist and artist who has created some inspiring comic strips aimed at spreading the message of wildlife conservation. The series is called Pocket Science India and we have already featured his cartoons on elephants and the leopard Ajoba.

Here is the third in the series, a very thoughtful take on the destruction of the vulture population in India, its causes, and the urgent need to save this majestic bird.

Wild animals face a lot of problems because of us. Many people know about reducing tiger numbers and elephant-train accidents because they get more attention. Many other species suffer undesirable and sometimes unthinkable fates because of us humans. Conservation research has brought to light the sad state of Vultures in India.

Wild animals face a lot of problems because of us. Many people know about reducing tiger numbers and elephant-train accidents because they get more attention.
Many other species suffer undesirable and sometimes unthinkable fates because of us humans. Conservation research has brought to light the sad state of Vultures in India.

Vultures are fascinating birds. They are scavengers, meaning, they mostly eat dead animals. There were many many thousands of vultures in India before. They would feed on dead animals, both wild as well as domestic ones. The reason there were so many of them was perhaps because India has a large number of cows, goats, sheep and other livestock. When domestic animals died, the vultures would clean up the carcasses.

Vultures are fascinating birds. They are scavengers, meaning, they mostly eat dead animals. There were many many thousands of vultures in India before. They would feed on dead animals, both wild as well as domestic ones. The reason there were so many of them was perhaps because India has a large number of cows, goats, sheep and other livestock.
When domestic animals died, the vultures would clean up the carcasses.

In the 1990’s, biologists began to notice that there were much fewer vultures around, as compared to the 1980’s. This was a bit worrying.

In the 1990’s, biologists began to notice that there were much fewer vultures around, as compared to the 1980’s. This was a bit worrying.

So, what a bunch of scientists did, was they sent out survey forms – across India – asking people if they have been seeing vultures around their place and if there is any decline. ‘A bit of worry’ turned into serious concern when bird watchers and ornithologists from all parts of India wrote back saying vulture numbers were going down severely.

So, what a bunch of scientists did, was they sent out survey forms – across India – asking people if they have been seeing vultures around their place and if there is any decline.
‘A bit of worry’ turned into serious concern when bird watchers and ornithologists from all parts of India wrote back saying vulture numbers were going down severely.

When scientists analyzed organs of the dead vultures, they found a chemical ‘Diclofenac’ was present in all of them. This chemical was killing the vultures! But how did this strange chemical get into the vulture?

When scientists analyzed organs of the dead vultures, they found a chemical ‘Diclofenac’ was present in all of them. This chemical was killing the vultures!
But how did this strange chemical get into the vulture?

Diclofenac is a drug that is given to cows and buffalos to treat fever, wounds and diseases. The dead cows with Diclofenac inside them were eaten by vultures, and they in-turn got Diclofenac into themselves. Tragic! Who would have thought, right?

Diclofenac is a drug that is given to cows and buffalos to treat fever, wounds and diseases. The dead cows with Diclofenac inside them were eaten by vultures, and they in-turn got Diclofenac into themselves. Tragic! Who would have thought, right?

Scientists used computer models to predict what the decreasing population trend should look like if it was in fact Diclofenac that was killing our vultures. They observed that the decrease in real-life was identical to the computed predictions. The Oriental White-Backed Vulture, Slender Billed Vulture and Indian Vulture were most affected. Later, it was seen that the Red-Headed Vulture and Egyptian Vulture weren’t far behind!

Scientists used computer models to predict what the decreasing population trend should look like if it was in fact Diclofenac that was killing our vultures. They observed that the decrease in real-life was identical to the computed predictions.
The Oriental White-Backed Vulture, Slender Billed Vulture and Indian Vulture were most affected. Later, it was seen that the Red-Headed Vulture and Egyptian Vulture weren’t far behind!

All vultures were dying from ‘gout’. The scientists’ computer predictions indicated that even if ONE percent of all carcasses had Diclofenac, then the vultures feeding on them would go extinct. Studies showed that around TEN percent of all carcasses had Diclofenac. That was too much! Thankfully the Indian government banned Diclofenac for veterinary use in 2006. A recent study compared the number of carcasses that contained Diclofenac and found that it has reduced to SIX percent. This means our vultures have some hope!

All vultures were dying from ‘gout’. The scientists’ computer predictions indicated that even if ONE percent of all carcasses had Diclofenac, then the vultures feeding on them would go extinct. Studies showed that around TEN percent of all carcasses had Diclofenac. That was too much!
Thankfully the Indian government banned Diclofenac for veterinary use in 2006. A recent study compared the number of carcasses that contained Diclofenac and found that it has reduced to SIX percent. This means our vultures have some hope!

Vultures are super important in our ecosystem. They help clean up the dead stuff. It is possible to save them by putting some effort in: 1. Fully getting rid of Diclofenac (It is still available for human use) 2. Trying alternative drugs like Meloxicam – which has been tested to be safe 3. Increasing vulture numbers through breeding centres 4. Constantly and scientifically monitoring their populations

Vultures are super important in our ecosystem. They help clean up the dead stuff. It is possible to save them by putting some effort in:
1. Fully getting rid of Diclofenac (It is still available for human use)
2. Trying alternative drugs like Meloxicam – which has been tested to be safe
3. Increasing vulture numbers through breeding centres
4. Constantly and scientifically monitoring their populations

India has 9 species of gorgeous-looking vultures.

India has 9 species of gorgeous-looking vultures.

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About the author: Parikshit Suryavanshi is a freelance interviewer, writer and translator based in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. You can visit his blog to read more from him.

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