A new veterinary drug that will replace one that is responsible for poisoning vultures in the subcontinent could spell hope for the engendered raptors.
Three years ago South Asian countries had committed at a conference in Kathmandu to ban the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac that vultures ingested from carcasses of dead livestock and which ultimately killed them. But the ban was not being enforced with the urgency required.
The new drug, meloxicam has been found by researchers to be non-toxic for vultures. Conservationists hope it will be easier to replace diclofenac than to ban it altogether.
Last week's international conference on vulture conservation in New Delhi was told that meloxicam had been tested by Indian and international scientists and was a safe substitute. "It will solve about 50-60 percent of the problems the vultures are facing," said Hem Sagar Baral, chief executive of Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) who attended the conference with four other Nepali specialists.
Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory and painkiller fed to sick livestock is said to be responsible for the deaths of more than 90 percent of India's Oriental White-rumped, Long-billed and Slender-billed vultures, which died after eating animal carcasses. The IUCN-World Conservation Union has listed the three vulture species as critically endangered, the category for animals closest to extinction. A decade ago India, Pakistan and Nepal together held more than 90 percent of the world's population of these vultures.
Chris Bowden, who heads the British-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' (RSPB) vulture conservation programme, told the New Delhi meeting: "I am convinced that diclofenac will be banned in India this year and possibly within the next six months. Without a ban, Asian vultures will become extinct."
Nepal's population of White-rumped and Slender billed vultures has dropped more than 95 percent in the last 10 years, leaving us with less than five percent of the world's White-rumped population and below one percent of its Slender-bills, says BCN. About 15 years ago, the White-rumped breeding population here was estimated at more than 50,000 pairs. Today fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs remain in the wild. "It's pretty much the same scenario as in India," said Baral.
Vultures play a vital role as scavengers and help halt the spread of disease. Fewer vultures means more food for stray dogs, allowing them to thrive and potentially leading to increased incidence of rabies. India's Parsi community also uses vultures to dispose of their dead, a practice that could become unsustainable unless the vulture population rebounds.
Among the recommendations made at the New Delhi meeting:
l Step up regional cooperation between the vulture range states like Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Burma.
l Immediate steps to completely phase out diclofenac.
l Urgent censuses of vulture populations
According to Baral, Nepal's Ministry of Health has the authority to ban diclofenac but the request would have to come from the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC) in the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation. "The government should immediately ban the veterinary use of diclofenac and facilitate companies to produce the safe alternative drug meloxicam," said Baral, adding that authorities "should provide subsidies until meloxicam takes over the diclofenac affected areas."
Experts at the New Delhi meeting urged more breeding centres such as one at Pinjore, Haryana that houses 61 vultures, including 10 slender bills, the first captive population of this most endangered species. Nepal's DNPWC has been approached for a proposed breeding centre in Chitwan for which BCN will be the main technical partner. But, says Baral: "Progress has been rather slow."