New Delhi, India – Not far from the bustling capital, just off India’s national highway, lies Asia’s largest breeding centre for vultures.
The Jatayu Breeding centre, aptly named for the Hindu god who took the form of a vulture in ancient mythology, aims to save the fabled jatayu from extinction. At the centre, three species of vultures – the oriental white-backed vulture, long-billed vulture and slender-billed vulture – have been bred in captivity after their populations crashed by 90 percent.
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A deadly disease pushed the vultures close to extinction in 1993 when scientists from Africa and South Asia first rang alarm bells. Subsequent investigations identified diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug given to the cattle on which vultures feed, as the main cause of their plummeting numbers. To save the vultures, captive breeding centres were set up in Nepal, Pakistan and India.
Now, a decade later, the hard work and dedication of conservation groups from across the world has helped turn the tide in favour of these mighty birds.
The world is home to more than 20 species of vultures, with Australia and Antarctica the only continents where these birds do not exist. More than half of these species are endangered. At the Jatayu Centre, run by the Bombay Natural History Society with assistance from the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the local forest department, vultures are watched closely by scientists with CCTV cameras, to minimise human contact.
The campaign to save vultures will be truly successful only when the ecosystem is free from diclofenac.
The centre’s nursery provides a nest-like environment for the chicks, and there’s a hospital for sick and injured birds. The vultures are fed on meat that has been quarantined to ensure there is no presence of the killer drug that originally wiped out their populations. Perches have been positioned strategically to recreate a natural environment. The large aviaries allow the birds to do wing exercises from one end of the enclosure to another. The hope is that one day these scavengers will return to the wild.
‘Vulture safe zones’
The fight to save vultures in India and in South Asia more broadly, is close to being considered a success. The first win came in 2005, when the Indian government banned diclofenac and neighbouring Pakistan and Nepal followed suit. An intensive media campaign aimed at cattle herders and farmers across South Asia promoted a safer alternative to the drug available at subsidised rates.
The Bombay Natural History Society, which has been leading the campaign in India, estimates there has been a steady decline in the rate of extinction thanks to the drug ban. Encouraged by the success so far, the Indian government is preparing to take the next step by releasing the birds in “Vulture Safe Zones”. The first set will be released in 2016 in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
But according to Rinkita Gaurav of the Bombay Natural History Society, more needs to be done. “The campaign to save vultures will be truly successful only when the ecosystem is free from diclofenac,” she said. Gaurav is concerned there are new variants of diclofenac, such as ketoprofen and aclofenac, being administered by cattle herders that are just as toxic for the vultures. “These, too, need to be phased out, before the captive vultures are released in the wild,” said Gaurav.
So why is saving vultures and reintroducing them back into the wild so important? The drastic drop in vulture numbers has ramifications for public health across South Asia, where animal carcasses that would have been picked clean by the vultures have in recent years been left to rot. Experts from Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction estimate that in the 1990s there were as many as 40 million vultures in India, which would have consumed about 12 million tonnes of carrion each year.
But with the almost complete collapse in vulture numbers, South Asia lost 99 percent of its carcass-disposal system. That’s why from an economic and ecological point of view, saving the vultures was imperative for South Asia.
Asian lessons for Europe
While South Asia has taken the lead in banning diclofenac, Europe has allowed its use for treating cattle disease.
Chris Bowden of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who has been leading the programme in South Asia, is shocked at this recent move. “After all the publicity and efforts to ban veterinary diclofenac across South Asia, it is unbelievable that this has happened. There are already intensive efforts under way by the European conservation community to correct the situation, but with all the hard scientific evidence available from Asia, we really shouldn’t have to do this,” he told Al Jazeera.
Bowden is now pushing for an international campaign, hoping the European Union will step in and ban the drug across the continent.
Spain is home to a large number of vulture species, including the Eurasian griffon vulture, cinereous vultures, the bearded vultures and Egyptian vultures. If diclofenac makes its way into the ecosystem, it could have disastrous consequences for all these species. Vultures have already disappeared across much of Europe, and are now confined mostly to small pockets.
The only hope seems to be expensive reintroduction projects, such as the Black Vulture Conservation Foundation started in 1984 with the release of cinereous vultures on the Spanish island of Mallorca, where the population has risen from under 20 to more than 100 today. In France, the Foundation for the Conservation of Bearded Vultures launched a reintroduction project, and thanks to its efforts vultures can now be seen in the Alps.
But because vultures often forage hundreds of kilometres away from their nest sites, the impact of diclofenac-laced carcasses may have spread over a much larger area, potentially limiting the recent successes of such reintroduction programmes.
Europe may have much to learn from the developing world in this regard. If it does, and if progress continues in South Asia, the unique birds – many of which now live in breeding centres across the world – could make their way back to the wild.