The guardians of nature we love to hate

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A vulture in the human sense of the term is someone who attacks the weak, a mean person, opportunist, greedy, in short, nothing that speaks good vibes. Vultures are often associated with dark human nature. Talk about bad publicity! It is safe to say that we know so little about these birds who should be widely known as the Guardians of the Wild, the Nature Cleanup Team.

Vulture Did you know

EGY is Egyptian vulture | Prakash Mehta

Vultures are birds of prey. They differ from other birds of prey in that they do not hunt. Vultures feed almost exclusively on carrion or animal carcasses. The voracious eaters that they are, a wake (collective name for vultures feeding on a carcass) of vultures can clean up a carcass in about half an hour, each eating up to 2.5kg of meat. This effective cleaning of rotting carcasses reduces the risk of spreading harmful diseases in our environment.

Know your vultures

In the world, there are 23 species of vultures, divided into two parts: the Old World vulture (16 species from Africa, Asia and Europe) and the New World vulture (seven species from America North and South). Fun fact: There are no vultures in Antarctica and Australia.

The CNRS is a monk vulture
The CNRS is monk vulture | Prakash Mehta

Of the 23 species, nine are found in India. These are the long-billed vulture or the Indian vulture, the slender-billed vulture, the crested vulture, the Himalayan griffon, the Eurasian griffon, the red vulture, the monk vulture, the Egyptian vulture or the pharaoh’s chicken, and the bearded vulture or the vulture. Of these nine, the long-billed, slender-billed and white-rumped species are endemic to the Indian subcontinent and are also the most affected species (critically endangered on the IUCN Red List).

What went wrong

It was in the early 1990s when the wonder drug, diclofenac, was introduced in two formulations: human and veterinary. The cheap and fast nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug began to be widely used for veterinary purposes, so much so that its street name became Hare paw wali goli. Easily available in nukkad kirana, Diclofenac was the one stop shop for the treatment of fever, pain and swelling in animals. Also note that it was only around this time that the vulture population suddenly crashed.

LBV is long-billed vulture
LBV is long-billed vulture | Prakash Mehta

When a sick animal receives Diclofenac, it stays in their body for 72 hours, after which it is expelled from the body as urine and excretory waste. But when an animal dies within that 72 hour window, the drug remains. Unfortunately, India does not have an efficient carcass disposal system, due to which most of the time carcasses are thrown outside the periphery of human settlements. When vultures feed on Diclofenac-soaked carrion, it kills them within days. Diclofenac is nephrotoxic for vultures due to which it suffers from acute renal failure, resulting in dehydration, uric acid contamination, visceral gout and finally slow and painful death. Studies have shown that the presence of diclofenac, as low as 0.01 to 0.02 mg per kilogram, is highly toxic to vultures.

Recovery efforts

LBV is long-billed vulture
LBV is long-billed vulture | Prakash Mehta

At first, when it was unsure whether diclofenac was the cause of the vulture population crash, the decline baffled researchers. The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), during its regular bird census, had noticed the rapid decline in the bird population. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, The Peregrine Fund, the organization that worked to breed vultures, quickly discovered that after being fed carcasses of dead cattle, all the birds were dying. Repeated experiments and studies have all led to diclofenac. Thus, with the help of international scientific communities, finding that there was up to 97% decline in the vulture population, the South Asian Vulture Recovery Plan was introduced in 2003-2004, and in 2006, the veterinary formulation of diclofenac was banned. But due to the failure to implement important rules and regulations regarding the availability of the human formulation of the drug, it has become the best solution for sick cattle. It had the same effect on the vultures.

WRV is a white-rumped vulture
WRV is a white-rumped vulture | Prakash Mehta

Studies have shown that the drug Meloxicam can be used instead of Diclofenac because it has the same effect on animals, and it has been identified as a safe drug for vultures.

Impact of declining vulture population on environment and culture

Due to the decline in the vulture population, there is an excess of food available for wild dogs, rats, mice, and other scavengers. Lots of food leads to more reproduction. After feeding, vultures move to their natural habitats, such as woodlands and cliffs, and they have a powerful digestive juice that destroys harmful bacteria and other infections. Wild dogs and other scavengers, however, live around human settlements and contaminate our living space. Many zoonoses are spread because of this animal-human interaction. Since the vulture population collapsed, these cases have increased exponentially.

HE is the Himalayan Griffon
HIM is Himalayan Griffon | Prakash Mehta

The decline of the vulture population in the Indian subcontinent has been strongly felt by the Parsi and Tibetan Buddhist communities. The funeral tradition of these two communities depended mainly on vultures. Due to the decline in the bird population, the Parsi dakhmas or the Tower of Silence holds the corpses for a longer period compared to a quick burial in the sky with the help of vultures. This forced the community to accept alternative practices for disposing of a corpse. Likewise, Tibetan Buddhists also follow the Heavenly Burial. In the long run, the absence of these birds will lead to changes in culture and tradition.

How can I help you

HIM is the Himalayan Griffon, EUR is the Eurasian Griffon, LBV is the Long-billed Vulture
HIM is the Himalayan Griffon, EUR is the Eurasian Griffon, LBV is the Long-billed Vulture | Prakash Mehta

Right now, completely banning the production and use of diclofenac for veterinary purposes and conserving vulture habitats are the only two immediate things an ordinary man can do. Strong conservation policies and strict law enforcement are needed. It’s not that there aren’t any vulture conservation laws, there is a lack of implementation. The vulture falls under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act. This annex protects endangered species from poaching, killing and trade by making violators liable to the most severe penalties. At present, there is less than a lakh of vultures in India. Public awareness to protect these birds and their habitat is the need of the hour.

WRV is a white-rumped vulture
WRV is a white-rumped vulture | Prakash Mehta

Strict rules and a total ban on the veterinary formulation of diclofenac alone will improve the situation. In theory, there should have been 80 to 90% less production of Diclofenac since the ban in 2008 and the resolution to allow the use of Diclofenac as a single dose injection for humans only (July 2015). But the illegal manufacture, distribution and use of diclofenac continues. If you think it took a lot of effort to conserve the tigers, you can assume that it will be a Herculean task to conserve the vultures.


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