The legacy of diclofenac continues to cast a shadow over India’s vultures. However, efforts are being taken to revive populations
In the Ramayan, besides Hanuman, the most fervent of Sri Ram’s devotees was Jatayu, the king of vultures who sacrificed his life to prevent Ravana from abducting Sita. Later, his crippled brother Sampaati helped the Vanaras searching for Sita to finally locate her on the island of Lanka.
Such is the reverence with which the vulture is held India’s culture and religious texts
And yet, in the last three decades, vultures in India have almost but disappeared.
Today, being the International Day for Vulture Awareness, is a good time to talk about this very important bird species. Without vultures, dead bodies of animals would have rotted in the open and spread disease.
In the 1990s, the top environmental story of the decade, at least for India, was about mass deaths of vultures in the country. How it unknowingly mass-poisoned its vultures.
The culprit was diclofenac, a veterinary drug that is usually administered or used to be administered to cattle as a pain reliever. Diclofenac is also used to treat pain in humans.
Basically this drug proved to be lethal to vultures in India. The drug remained in cattle carcasses after the animals’ death. As the vultures fed on it, the drug entered their blood stream causing kidney failure and eventually, a painful death.
According to Jemima Parry-Jones, a British conservationist, who is an authority on birds of prey, some 40 million vultures died across India between 1998 and 2018 due to diclofenac.
And these statistics look scary. These included Slender-billed, 97 per cent of whom were wiped out as well as White-rumped vultures, 99.9 per cent of whom died, the Indian vulture, of whom 99 per cent died.
The government of India finally banned the use of diclofenac in 2007. But the mass die-off of vultures had terrible and unseen impacts.
For one, the tiny Zoroastrian community of India, including Parsis and Iranis, were left with very few vultures, which have played an important role in disposing bodies of the community’s dead on their dakhmas or Towers of Silence since times immemorial.
The decline in vultures also lead to an increase in the number of feral dogs. A whopping 7 million more feral dogs were added to the existing population. These inflicted 40 million more dog bites between 1993 and 2016. The loss of vultures caused US$34 billion in losses to the economy of India.
Moreover, the feral dogs and other scavengers could not replace the vultures as they could not dispose of carcasses as efficiently.
The diclofenac debacle led to the formation of Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) in 2011, a consortium of 14 partner organizations and 14 Indian government agencies.
Their goal was to restore at least 40% (16 million) of the vanished 40 million vultures of South Asia.
In order to achieve this, conservation breeding of vultures was decided.
According to the plan, seven more vulture breeding centres were established on the lines of the Jatayu and Sparrow Conservation Breeding Centre or JCBC in Pinjore, Haryana.
The JCBC was established in 2001 as part of a joint arrangement between the Haryana government and the Bombay Natural History Society or BNHS.
Today, there are seven other centres located at Rani (Assam), Buxa Tiger Reserve (West Bengal), Ranchi, Bhopal, Hyderabad, Junagadh and Bhubaneswar.
After being bred, the vultures were to be released back into the wild, according to the plan.
Only when the drug menace is taken care of, will the bird considered the living manifestation of Jatayu be able to survive what has probably been the toughest ordeal it has ever faced in this part of the world.
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