• Anurag Kumar

Vulture Crisis in India

With so many wild mammals, numerous unplanned carcass disposal sites, and intensively managed livestock in Asia (especially India), vultures play a crucial part in keeping environmental health by scavenging meat from carcasses.


Indian Vulture photographed at Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India.
Indian Vulture photographed at Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India. (Alok Katkar)

The Indian vulture and the white-rumpled vulture species have suffered a 99%–97% population decrease in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. The Oriental white-backed vulture was so abundant in India in the 1980s that it was arguably the most common big bird of prey on the planet. Then vultures began to vanish from the landscape at an alarming rate.


Many were found sick or dead across India, as well as Pakistan and Nepal. They are currently classified as severely endangered and face a variety of dangers to both the environment and both animal and human health.


As observed at carcass disposal sites, the lack of vultures will affect the numbers and distribution of other scavenger species. Crows and stray dog numbers have risen exponentially, increasing the risk of rabies and other illnesses that can infect domestic and wild birds as well as livestock.


Reason for Vanishing Vultures


The mystery of why the vultures were disappearing was solved in 2004 by a study. The main, if not the sole, cause of their demise was a veterinary drug called diclofenac.


Diclofenac is a Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) and when given to working animals it can reduce joint pain and so keep them working for longer. The drug is believed to be swallowed by vultures with the flesh of dead cattle who were given diclofenac in the last days of life.


The birds were feeding on the carcasses of animals who had recently received diclofenac medication. The birds were dying of kidney failure at the time. It has been demonstrated that even if only 1% of animal carcasses had fatal doses of the medication, this would have been enough to cause vulture numbers to plummet.


Diclofenac's Horrific Side Effects


Even in tiny quantities, diclofenac is deadly to vultures, causing kidney failure. As a result, uric acid builds up in the birds' bloodstream and crystallizes around their internal organs, causing visceral gout.


Millions of vultures who ate drug-laced carcasses perished as a result of the widespread usage of diclofenac in India; certain populations have decreased by more than 95% since the 1990s.


The effect of this drug on vultures reminds us of the devastating impact of the pesticide DDT on birds worldwide. It took years for governments to remove DDT from use.


Diclofenac is so devastating that we do not have many years left if threatened vultures are to be saved. Removing diclofenac and expanding the captive breeding centers are the only ways to keep the birds.


Impact of Vulture Declines in India


Only when these magnificent birds vanish from an ecosystem do we realize how important they are. The consequences of vulture populations collapsing in India as a result of eating the remains of animals treated with the veterinary medication diclofenac nearly resulted in a public health disaster.


Over 11 years, the wild dog population increased by 7 million to 29 million animals, resulting in an additional 38.5 million dog attacks. Deaths from rabies are thought to have soared by about 50,000 as a result of these bites, costing the Indian government $34 billion to combat the disease's spread.


You can almost liken it to the rather macabre game of Russian roulette. Vultures eat about every three days on average, so that’s 120 days a year — and so that’s like 120 pulls of the trigger.

Cultural Implications


For the Parsee community, vultures are extremely important culturally. According to the ancient Parsee community, the human body is unclean while the land, air, and water are pure.


They do not bury, cremate, or otherwise dispose of the deceased because doing so would pollute those elements; instead, scavengers consume the bodies.


The ritual became more planned over time, and "Towers of Silence" were built to house the bodies. As a result, only flying scavengers could use the bodies, and vultures quickly emerged as the primary scavenger because they could easily strip the flesh from the entire body in just 30 minutes before flying away.


This approach was thought to be hygienic and prevents the contamination of their precious elements. The Parsees have a reason for fear because the once-prolific vultures have declined to the point where for the past two years, none have visited the Towers of Silence.


Now, to maintain their faith, the members of the Parsee faith use huge solar panels with large reflectors that concentrate radiation to desiccate and accelerate the decomposition of their deceased, reducing it to almost nothing within a few days.


Government Bans on Diclofenac


In 2006, India made the veterinary medication diclofenac illegal to manufacture as an anti-inflammatory treatment for animals. Bans were imposed in Nepal, Pakistan, and, most recently, Bangladesh. Government prohibitions in many nations have been a significant reaction to the situation, and recent evidence indicates that diclofenac levels are starting to decline.


Diclofenac, on the other hand, is still discovered in cattle corpses.


Human-formulated diclofenac is still available, albeit a good step was taken in 2015 to address this when the bigger veterinary-sized vials were also outlawed. So much more has to be done to prevent the use of equally deadly human diclofenac formulations or other unproven veterinary medications in its place.


Role of Vultures in the Ecosystem Preservation


Vultures are often disregarded and misunderstood as lowly scavengers, although they serve an essential role in the ecosystems in which they dwell. These scavengers do the grunt job of cleaning up after the dead, helping to keep ecosystems healthy and disease at bay.


Vultures have particularly acidic stomach acid, allowing them to eat rotting animal carcasses. Anthrax, botulinum toxins, and rabies are frequently found in these scavenged leftovers, which would otherwise kill other animals. As a result, when vultures eat carcasses, they keep illnesses at bay.


Vultures are so fast feeders that they may pick a small animal's body clean in about half an hour. Some vultures take it a step further and consume the bones as well, ensuring that no part of a meal goes to waste.


Captive-breeding Programs


Captive-breeding programs for several species of Indian vulture have been started. The vultures are long-lived and slow in breeding, so the programs are expected to take decades. Vultures


reach breeding age at about five years old. It is hoped that captive-bred birds will be released to the wild when the environment is clear of diclofenac.


Since it was approved for veterinary use, researchers have expressed worry about the use of the anti-inflammatory medicine diclofenac in cattle, because the drug is toxic to vultures who may consume it through dead cows.


According to Rhys Green, a conservation biologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, the drug could cause vulture populations to drop by 1–8% every year.


Vultures are nature’s hazmat service: They eat animal carcasses that when left untouched become breeding grounds for disease. Perhaps that’s why humans are starting to come around to appreciate them.


The same fact that has given them a bad rap that they eat dead animals is what makes them so critically important.

Conclusion


The remarkable ability of vultures to consume diseased, decaying flesh without suffering any detrimental health effects could have applications in medicine. They serve as nature's cleaning mechanisms, clearing the environment of diseased carcasses before they endanger nearby animals or people.


A wide range of environmental hazards is posed by the severe vulture loss seen throughout India, including changes in the abundance and distribution of other scavenging species and, ultimately, risks to human and animal health.


In India, there have been reports of an increase in the number of feral dogs, which poses concerns for both humans and animals from various diseases, including rabies and other similar illnesses. There are currently a lot of rabies cases in India, and a complete lack of high-quality anti-rabies vaccination in rural regions might make the situation worse.



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Anurag Kumar is a researcher at the International Youths Organization for Peace and Sustainability. He is also an Engineering graduate from Pune University, India.


Inputs and Edits by Aswin Raghav R.