The vulture song

  • A toxic drug, though banned, is still killing South Asian vultures

May 29, 2014-

The veterinary drug diclofenac is notorious in bird conservation circles. Between 1992 and 2007, the drug was found responsible for a staggering decline-killing more than 97 percent of the population of three species of Nepal’s Gyps vultures—the Oriental white-backed vulture, the long-billed vulture and the slender-billed vulture. Once a common sight in Nepal and the region, these typical vultures—bald headed, long-necked, hunched and with dark plumage—died in the thousands from consuming corpses of livestock that had been fed diclofenac, which has anti-inflammatory properties. The drug—which attacks the vulture’s liver, kidneys and spleen—was single-handedly responsible for almost wiping out these scavenging birds of prey.

After long lobbying from conservationists, the governments of Nepal, India and Pakistan met in 2004 to ban diclofenac. Between 2007 and 2010, studies showed a slowing down and a possible reversal of the decline in Nepal and India’s vulture population. Buttressed by novel new methods of conservation, the vultures are starting to make a tentative comeback. There are vulture breeding centres in Nepal, India and Pakistan and vulture ‘restaurants’, ie, safe feeding zones, in Rupandehi, Nawalparasi and Chitwan districts. A number of local communities have also come together to ban the use of diclofenac in their localities and help conserve the vulture.

A new study by Bird Conservation International shows that diclofenac, however, never really went away. Despite the ban, the drug continues to be used illegally to treat livestock, often with human versions of diclofenac. Furthermore, the study shows that diclofenac does not just affect vultures but a variety of other large birds, including eagles. Vultures and eagles are essential components of the ecosystem. Vultures are carrion-eaters and dispose of carcasses where diseases harmful to humans could incubate whereas eagles are top predators that help in controlling rodent and small mammal populations.

In order to prevent a manmade near-extinction like that of the late 90s and early 2000s, immediate steps need to be taken. Previous conservation efforts, which include the regional ban on diclofenac and the establishment of breeding centres, were stellar examples of pan-regional collaboration. This type of cooperation must continue, since animals and birds do not recognise borders. Nepal’s Ministry of Environment must reach out to its counterparts in India and Pakistan and work to prevent the manufacturing, sale and use of diclofenac in livestock. At the same time, a bottom-up approach must also be pursued, like the creation of community-managed feeding zones for vultures. Nepal is a leading example here, with provisional safe zones in 18 districts. Vulture restaurants are a novel concept that can be exported to neighbouring countries where local communities supply old and sick livestock for the vultures to feed on and in return, receive compensation from the state, livestock parts and attract tourism. Vultures might not be a charismatic species, unlike the tiger and the rhino, but their role in balancing the ecosystem is well documented.

Published: 30-05-2014 08:57

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