If vultures can go what is next? , by Oliver Gray-Read

Today we hear of so many species ‘facing extinction’ or ‘wiped out over most of their range’ that we can become slightly de-sensitized and numb to what seems at time to be a grim and inevitable play with us playing the villain.

In the last twenty years three species of Indian vulture have gone from being one of the most prolifically abundant raptors to top of the IUCN Critically Endangered list. The reason behind the current Indian Vulture disaster that befell those graceful giants of the sky is the same as for the cause of the declines in so many other species; humans. But is there something that stands out about the Indian Sub-continent vulture crisis from other animal wipe-outs, past and present, and is there a last hope for the vultures?

It is difficult for someone from a country where vultures have never been present to grasp the breath-taking rapidity and scale of this wipe-out. India in the mid 1980’s had an estimated 40 million of just Indian white-backed vultures (Gyps bengalensis). These birds were a part of the urban and country scenery as crow or seagulls in the UK. And then they were gone. Vanished. The figure for White-backed vultures is over 99.9% of the population killed, and the rest going the same way.

Nowadays the factors influencing the destruction of the world’s species are usually at the same time well-known and complex issues. In all too many cases the people and companies causing the destruction of wildlife are entirely conscious of what they are doing; the poachers who takes the last tiger out from a tiger reserve, the company which takes toxic waste out to sea and dumps it because the fine is tiny fraction of the cost of dealing with it responsibly. In these cases the catalysts stem from huge issues like global poverty and corporate greed.

Extinction of vultures in India was not something that anybody planned or wanted.

Diclofenac’s impact on vultures was totally unexpected. Perhaps the vulture disaster falls into the category of unforeseen, unintentional accidental exterminations of wildlife, except that in this case humans are already suffering the damage along with the vultures. Some figures for the costs both in terms of human health and economic costs to the Indian government are both astronomical and plausible.

Diclofenac was the silent invisible assassin of the vulture, a pain-killer for livestock introduced at the end of the 1980s. By the time is was discovered to be the cause of the vulture kill-off and the prompt and well adhered to ban for veterinary use implemented it was already too late for most the vultures.

With it completely gone from livestock there would hypothetically be no real obstacles in their way given enough time; the food availability is still there and many vultures will happily nest in villages so long as there are suitable trees.

However with veterinary Diclofenac banned, now human-use Diclofenac (which is the same product with the same effects on vultures) has been subverted to the livestock market. In almost every village in India there will be a small, non-descript drugstore and in perhaps a large percentage of these shops local dairy farmers, probably completely unaware of the ban or consequences will be buying Diclofenac for their cattle.

When talking to people they relate how they used to see so many vultures. They used to be a part of the scenery. Vultures were one of those few species who people thought could never go away, and had even adapted to benefit from humans and flourish around them. Meanwhile they were performing an invaluable cleaning service to us, in the least intrusive way possible. The biggest intrusion a vulture can ever have to a human is to poo on him, and this requires co-operation by the person to stand underneath the vulture and wait.

The vulture has shown itself to be an adaptable, useful and likeable creature to humans, and the case for preserving them at least in small numbers comes down to one main problem; removing human-use Diclofenac from the veterinary market. This at least presents a clear cut and definable target, and is helped by the facts that nobody makes fortunes selling it under-the-counter, or buys it to deliberately poison vultures, and lastly that there is clearly a large economic incentive for the return of vultures. With all the good work that went into banning and removing Diclofenac from the market and replacing it with an affordable alternative, Meloxicam, it would surely be tragic to let the last few wild vultures slip away now. The human population explosion that is currently taking more and more available habitat and the chemical toxins we are contaminated the earth, water, air, and biosphere become more numerous and complex in their affects the more species will struggle to survive. If a species as abundant and tolerant of humans as gyps vultures can be so devastated in a such a short time then we must consider this a warning shot to be heeded.



2 Responses to “If vultures can go what is next? , by Oliver Gray-Read”

  1. Maura Malloy says:

    The vultures are of immense value, not only for their part in the ecosystem but for the irreplaceable beauty that watching their flight engenders in our hearts.

    Good luck with your work.

  2. Jacob graham Savoie says:

    really good article Oli :)

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