The three species of vultures—white backed, long billed, slender billed—used to number 40 million in the Indian sub-continent. But in less than a decade, this number has dwindled to a few thousand. Experts are further worried about the high mortality rate of almost 50-80 per cent.
In the first ever seminar of its kind, top scientists and wildlife experts from all over the world met recently in New Delhi to prepare an action plan to rescue the vultures from extinction in South Asia. Attacked by a virus, the vulture population of India, Nepal and Pakistan is declining alarmingly and vultures could be extinct within the next five years if no solution can be found.
Meanwhile "convincing new evidence" from Dr. Lindsay Oaks of the Peregrine Fund, earlier this year, in Pakistan pointed to the commonly used non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac — a new environmental poison — as responsible for the vulture deaths, according to Dr. Risebrough. This poison has been found lethal to the white-backed vulture, he adds. Till this new evidence, he believed the unexplained deaths of vultures could be due to disease. Birds eating the meat of cattle injected with this drug, died of visceral gout.
Diclofenac is intensively used in India. The drug was used in India since 1994 as a veterinary medicine, though not for elephants. It dominates the painkiller use and has the common side effects of similar painkillers like gastritis, peptic ulcers, and renal failure. Even if a single carcass contains lethal levels of Diclofenac, it is enough to do damage as vultures can live on that for a week.
Among internationally renowned vulture experts and scientists from the Royal Society for Protection of Birds, UK, and from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, there have been rather unexpected participants: representatives of the Mumbai Parsi community. The Parsi community has decided to spare neither effort nor expense to help solving the vulture crisis. The threatening extinction of the vultures is not just a conservation issue for them, it affects the future existence of their religion. Parsi or Zoroastrians have a unique way of disposing off the bodies of their dead. They do not burn or bury them, they expose them to the sun. Ritually kept in the "Tower of Silence" in the open air, they are devoured by birds of prey the most important of them being the vulture.
The Parsis are a small community, mainly living in India. 55,000 of the 76,000 Indian Parsis are living in Mumbai. On an average there are hundred deaths per month. There are five "Towers of Silence" at the Malabar Hills near Mumbai. To keep them working, they need 60 to 100 birds. Now there are fewer and fewer vultures and the system of disposal threatens to break down. The Mumbai Parsis are now trying to develop a captive vulture-breading program to rescue the bird from extinction.