The vulture population has decreased in India by 97% in the last decade, On March 17 this year, locals in the Chaiygaon area of Milanpur village in Assam’s Kamrup district found the carcasses of more than 95 Himalayan griffon vultures and a steppe eagle.
Species as abundant as the Bengal white-backed vulture, with populations estimated at 80 million in the 1980s, nearly reached the brink of extinction in just 20 years.
These misunderstood birds are extremely important members of ecosystems. They fly great distances to clean up rotting carcasses. This helps prevent disease outbreaks. A world without vultures would be a stinking place littered with disease and corpses on our landscape. These creatures effectively help maintain the functioning and health of an ecosystem.
Determining the causes that, in less than a decade, had caused the virtual extinction of these three species of vultures was a priority issue for scientists. But it was not until 2004 that a group of researchers revealed in Nature the cause of the sudden population regression: diclofenac. This non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) was widely used in domestic animals in Asia.
In the incident, which is suspected to be a case of pesticide poisoning, 100 Himalayan griffon vultures and one steppe eagle have been confirmed dead.
How many vultures die in India because of diclofenac?
More than 40 million vultures had died from ingesting cattle carcasses containing diclofenac. A simulation model showed that if just 1% of carcasses were contaminated with diclofenac, Indian vulture populations would decline by 60-90% annually, and a study of carcasses showed around 10% were contaminated.
The reason behind the decline of Vulture
The main cause of vultures’ disappearance is the use in livestock of the veterinary drug Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory and analgesic that is also used in humans to treat conditions such as arthritis, as the Government itself has admitted.
Other main reasons for population declines are varied, but poisoning or human persecution, or both, are on the list of almost every species in decline. The deliberate poisoning of carnivores is probably the most widespread cause of vulture poisoning.
Ecological, health and cultural consequences
The disappearance of vulture populations and, therefore, of the important ecosystem services that these species provide soon began to be noticed. The accumulation of uneaten carrion caused the proliferation of feral dogs, rats… which led to side effects such as an increase in rabies cases.
A study carried out in India quantified economically the impact of the disappearance of vulture populations. As per the researchers, the annual physician compensation and worker’s compensation costs associated with human rabies cases transmitted by wild dog bites implied an annual cost of $2.43 billion.
The government banned the use of diclofenac in 2005, but it’s unclear if the ban will be enough to save the endangered birds. Conservation organizations have set up “vulture restaurants” where safe, uncontaminated carcasses are provided daily for the vultures.
Threats to vultures
Due to their unique habits, vultures face a multitude of threats, including direct and indirect poisoning, electrocution, and collisions with power infrastructure, habitat loss, disturbance, and food shortages.
Many cultures have superstitions about vultures, such as that the birds are omens of death or mistaken beliefs that vultures are a threat to healthy livestock, and in many areas vultures are still hunted illegally or removed from food sources.
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