Saturday, May 3, 2008

Vultures face extinction

- Study links decline to painkiller traces in carcasses

New Delhi, May 2: Three species of vultures in India face extinction within a decade, wildlife scientists said last month, after a new study of the 15-year decline in the nation’s vulture population.

India has lost 99.9 per cent of the oriental white-rumped vultures over the past 15 years and 96.8 per cent of long-billed vultures and slender-billed vultures, researchers from India and the UK said.

All three species of vultures could be down to a few hundred birds or less across the whole country, and thus functionally extinct, in less than a decade, said the scientists from the Bombay Natural History Society and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other UK institutions.

“Time has almost run out to prevent the extinction of vultures in the wild in India,” said Richard Cuthbert of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and a co-author of the study published today in Journal of Bombay Natural History Society.

The latest vulture count led by Bombay Natural History Society scientist Vibhu Prakash last year covered 160 road transects, or segments, across central, northern and eastern India, totalling about 18,884km. In one set of 70 transects, where he had recorded 130 birds in 2003, he spotted only 31 last year.

“Although thousands of birds may remain, they are now spread very thinly across a huge area,” Prakash and his colleagues said in their report. “This is a dangerous situation for such social birds, which nest and roost communally and rely on information gained from one another when searching for widely dispersed food sources.”

Scientists tracking the decline have attributed it to diclofenac, a common painkiller. They argue that vultures get exposed to toxic levels of diclofenac when they feed on carcasses of livestock that have died within a few days of treatment.

After a sustained campaign by conservation scientists, the Indian government outlawed manufacture of the veterinary form of diclofenac two years ago. In discussions leading to the ban on veterinary diclofenac, government scientists had questioned the hypothesis and demanded stronger evidence of the link.

“It’s commonly used to relieve pain in animals used to draw carts,” said a senior animal husbandry scientist. “But I would have liked to see some more evidence of its role,” the official said.

A senior scientist specialising in pharmacology said the drug is metabolised by the body within a few hours, and the amount of diclofenac in the body drops to very low levels.

But Cuthbert told The Telegraph that investigations have shown that even four days after treatment, there are substantial diclofenac residues in the tissues of livestock.


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