Will Vultures have the last flight?
Rama Kant Mishra | 09 Apr 2008

Vultures have been the integral part of the food chain of the ecosystem and served as scavenger. But now the scavenger’s population is on decline drastically and they are endangered. Their absolute decline can devastate us posing severe problem of ecologi

Vultures are known to be the scavenger of the environment and feeds upon the carcasses of the dead animals and dead and decaying human corpses. Decades ago whenever there was a dead animal around, the vulture were swarmed and once the dead animal is disposed in the wild, they had feasting time. In Indian context vultures are very important component of the ecology to keep the environment clean by feeding the dead animals.
As per the tradition Indians are known to maintain their cattle stock till they can be useful for their agricultural use and milking purposes. Sending them to the butchery when they are not useful is out of question because emotionally they are attached to them. The problem begins only when they are dead and there is no proper way to dispose off the dead animal carcasses. Vultures have always been there to help as scavenger being an integral part of the Indian society of cleaning dead and decaying animal.  
But one can witness, vulture are hardly to be seen now a days. Have all the vultures gone away because they don’t get food? Have they all migrated to some other places in search of food or are there any other competitors for them in the same niche? According to a report published by Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Asian vultures are at risk of lethal kidney failure if they feed from carcasses of a cow that died after treatment with the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac. Populations of three species of South Asian vulture, the white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis), the long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus) and the slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris), have declined rapidly within the last decade and all are now critically endangered.
Diclofenac causes fatal kidney failure in vultures and residues of the drug have been found in most carcasses of wild vultures tested since the population decline began. “Diclofenac poisoning is the main, and possibly the only, cause of the vulture decline,
There are other opinions also about the declining population of vultures. According to one conservator, the decline might be due to scarcity of food for the scavengers because people prefer to bury dead animals, especially cattle, from the hygiene point of view. Hence, the vultures have to depend upon carcass of stray animals.
This ecological imbalance is alarming, which might not be evident in the short term but in the long run the declining population of these vultures will have adverse impact on the nature’s food chain. About nine species of vultures live in the Indian subcontinent, and each has a specific ecological role. The population of three species i.e. White-backed Vulture, Slender billed Vulture and Long billed Vulture in the wild has declined drastically over the past decade. The decline of Gyps genus in India has been put at 97% by 2005. Because of the evidence of widespread and rapid population decline, all three-vulture species were listed by IUCN, the World Conservation Union, in 2000 as ‘Critically Endangered’, which is the highest category of endangerment. This assessment indicated a high risk of global extinction in the wild in the near future.
Unfortunately, the current captive populations in India are also not viable for any of the species and, therefore, complete extinction is likely to occur if no action is taken immediately. India also moved a International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) motion in 2004 for vulture Conservation, which was accepted in the form of the IUCN resolution which “called upon Gyps vulture Range countries to begin action to prevent all uses of diclofenac in veterinary applications that allow diclofenac to be present in carcasses of domestic livestock available as food for vultures; establishment of IUCN South Asian Task Force under the auspices of the IUCN; Range countries to develop and implement national vulture recovery plans, including conservation breeding and release.”
The governments of India and Nepal have both placed legal restrictions on veterinary diclofenac. From 12 August 2006, the production and importation of veterinary diclofenac is no longer permitted in India, and Nepal has also recently deregistered diclofenac, preventing the manufacture or import of the drug. Both countries are promoting the use of meloxicam as a safe alternative to diclofenac.
Action Plan for Vulture Conservation in India recommended the establishment of captive holding and captive breeding facilities for three species of Gyps vultures at six different places in South Asia, besides implementing a ban on veterinary use of Diclofenac. These centres would serve as source for reintroduction of the birds after removal of the cause of mortality from the environment. Vulture Breeding and Conservation Centre had already been established at Pinjore, Haryana in 2001 and another one has been established in 2005 at Buxa, West Bengal. These centres would also serve as rescue and analysis centres for sick vultures or carcasses sent for treatment and investigations.
Vultures are the primary removers of carrion in India and Africa. Removal of three major scavengers from the ecosystem will affect the equilibrium between populations of other scavenging species and result in increase in putrefying carcasses. In the absence of carcass disposing mechanisms, vulture declines may lead to an increase in the number of putrefying animal carcasses in the country side. In some areas the population of feral dogs, being the main scavenging species in the absence of vultures, has been observed to increase. Both increases in putrefying carcasses and changes in the scavenger populations have associated disease risks for wildlife, livestock and humans. In the absence of any alternative mode of disposal of animal carcasses, they continue to be disposed off in the open, and with increasing numbers of feral dogs, there is increased risk of spread of rabies, and livestock borne diseases like anthrax. The decline in vultures has also affected the traditional custom of the Parsis of placing their dead in the ‘Towers of Silence’ for vultures to feed upon.
Researchers’ vulture study might have solved the mystery of their decline but have not resurrected the hope for their survival. Critics suggests that not only by knowing the cause of mortality and decline in population will solve this problem, we need to work towards bringing back the sound population of vultures in our ecosystem to make up a balance. Unless that is achieved there is no use conducting scientific study on vultures. Because, if not protected, vultures will no more remain in significant number on the planet to carry out study on them. Well it’s the policy of vulture culture with a strong will which can save the last flight of vulture on the earth especially in the Indian subcontinent. Hope we see the vulture back again in the sky.