99.9% of India’s vultures have died out over the last 20 years, the victims of unintentional poisoning.
It took years to find out why India’s three vulture species — the long-billed, slender-billed and oriental white-backed vulture — were dying off. It turned out were feeding on dead cattle and other livestock that had been treated with an anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac. It was discovered in 2004 that diclofenac sends vultures into renal failure.
India banned the veterinary form of diclofenac in 2006, but vets and farmers just switched to using the version of the drug intended for humans. Now, India has warned 70 pharmaceutical companies to clearly mark diclofenac as “not for veterinary use” in a last-ditch effort to save the three vulture species from extinction.
The mass vulture die-offs have had terrible consequences throughout India. With no vultures to eat cattle carcasses (which are just dumped when the cows die), other predators have filled the gap. Populations of feral dogs have exploded in recent years, adding 5.5 million more canines to the streets. A report published last month in the journal Ecological Economics suggests this massive increase in feral dogs has led to tens of millions of attacks on humans and as many as 47,300 human deaths from rabies.
Rat populations have also increased, and that’s always a harbinger of diseases to come.
Meanwhile, the Parsis sect has lost the vultures which once transformed their dead back into nature. The Parsees believe that the human body is sacred, and laid out their corpses for vultures to eat rather than burn or bury them. With no vultures, the Parsees have resorted to using solar reflectors to mummify their dead rather than let them rot in the hot Indian sun.
Will the diclofenac ban be enough to save these vultures from extinction? It will take years — maybe decades — for populations to recover, if that’s even possible. Some conservation programs are doing well, but others aren’t: one small population of white-backed vultures recently disappeared. Chances are, it won’t be the last.