Asian vultures are in catastrophic decline and could disappear from the wild within a decade, a study has suggested.
One species, the oriental white-backed vulture, which was featured by Disney in its cartoon adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, has lost 99.9 per cent of its population in India since 1992.
Also at risk are the long-billed and slender-billed vultures. Their numbers have fallen by almost 97 per cent in the same period. Scientists say that the cause is an anti-inflammatory drug given to livestock, which is poisoning vultures that feed on the carcasses of treated animals. The drug, diclofenac, causes kidney failure in the birds.
Conservationists say that banning the sale of diclofenac and constructing more captive breeding centres is the only way to save the birds.
Vibhu Prakash, of the Bombay Natural History Society, who led the study with colleagues from the Zoological Society of London, said: “Efforts must be redoubled to remove diclofenac from the vultures’ food supply and to protect and breed a viable population in captivity.”
Diclofenac is used as a painkiller for human beings. Although the manufacture of a veterinary form of the drug was banned in India in 2006, it remains available. The human version of the drug is also being used to treat livestock, it is claimed.
Andrew Cunningham, of the Zoological Society of London, principal investigator and co-author of the report, said: “Imminent extinction looms for at least three species of vulture in India. Captive breeding is their last hope, so we are delighted that one of these species, the oriental white-backed vulture, has successfully been bred this year in one of the captive breeding centres.”
During the study scientists counted vultures in northern and central India. They surveyed the birds from vehicles along almost 19,000km (11,800 miles) of road. Their findings are published in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society.
The researchers concluded: “The oriental white-backed vulture is now in dire straits, with only one thousandth of the 1992 population remaining. All three species could be down to a few hundred birds or less across the whole country and thus functionally extinct in less than a decade. It is imperative that \ is removed completely from use in livestock.”
The number of vultures may be even lower because many of the sites in the study were in or near protected areas.
Richard Cuthbert, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who took part in the study, said: “Time has almost run out to prevent the extinction of vultures in the wild in India. The ban on diclofenac manufacture was a good start but a ban on selling it and other drugs known to cause kidney failure in vultures is vital.”
Because of the decline in the number of vultures, the Parsi community of Bombay is having to find other means of body disposal. After death Parsis are traditionally lain naked in a “Tower of Silence” on a mountain or hilltop, to be devoured by vultures and their bones dried by the sun. This practice has the ancient religious purpose of affirming the equality of all men in death. The idea is to avoid “polluting nature with rotten flesh”.
The Parsi community — of which the late Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, was a member — regards water, land and air as sacred, so more conventional methods of body disposal are seen as inappropriate.
Parsis in Britain, denied their traditional form of body disposal, have had to make do with cremations. Now their brethen in India may have to follow suit.
—The oriental white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis) is a social bird that nests and breeds in small colonies at the top of tall trees
— It grows up to 85cm (2.7ft) long with a 220cm (7ft) wingspan
— White-backed vulture populations are normally found on open plains but they will also live in hilly regions if near a town. They feed on carrion, usually cattle
— Vultures use warm air currents to soar at heights of up to 9,000ft (3,000m). In flight, they can reach speeds of 20-50mph (30-80kph)
— Their courtship display involves slow circling in pairs, with wingtips close together. Females lay a single egg, which is incubated for between 45 and 52 days
— As well as India, white-backed vultures are found in Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan, Cambodia, Pakistan and Nepal, though in much smaller numbers