Griffon vulture Gyps fulvus, in flight

The race to save vultures

Vultures once numbered in the millions, but indirect poisoning has caused alarming declines that pushed these birds to edge of extinction in India. We may finally be seeing a glimmer of hope, but there’s still a long way to go.

Vultures of the world

The poor old vulture is a much-maligned bird. You couldn’t really call them pretty, they don’t have a nice song, and they don’t have the best reputation. But vultures serve as one of nature’s most efficient waste disposers. Immensely important to the proper functioning of many ecosystems, they clean away the remains of dead animals, removing toxins from the environment that could be deadly for other wildlife.

There are 23 different species of vulture in the world, and they’re found on every continent, with the exception of Antarctica and Australia, but sadly, many vulture species are declining. Poisoning and lack of food in some areas are taking their toll. In India, however, vultures haven’t just been declining, they’ve been heading fast towards extinction, with far-reaching economic and social consequences.

Once thriving

The majority of the Indian population are Hindu, and don’t eat beef. They do raise large numbers of cattle for milk, but these animals are regarded as sacred and allowed to live to a natural old age. When they die, they’re often left out in open air dumps for vultures to dispose of.

This easy source of food meant that India used to support a truly massive population of vultures, with estimates from the early 90s placing their numbers between 100 and 160 million. One species in particular, the white-rumped vulture, was probably the most numerous large bird of prey on the planet at this time.

Vulture extending its wings

Unexpected road to extinction

Despite these numbers, local scientists started to notice a worrying decline in Indian vultures in the 1990s. At first they couldn’t understand what was going wrong. Birds were simply dying in their thousands, and although they were tested for pesticides, heavy metals and other pollutants, no single cause could be discovered. As the populations continued to crash, several conservation organisations, including the RSPB, began working together to try to find out what was happening.

Then, in 2003, there was a breakthrough. The sick vultures had all been suffering from a type of gout caused by kidney failure, and researchers realised that these symptoms were linked to poisoning from ibuprofen-type drugs called non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs). One drug in particular, diclofenac, had recently become available for veterinary use in India, where it was given to older cattle as a painkiller and to help with joint problems. More research discovered that all the sick vultures also had traces of diclofenac in their systems.

The answers came almost too late. By 2007, it was estimated that the white-rumped vulture population had fallen by an almost unbelievable 99.9%. Their current global population, which was tens of millions just a few years ago, is now estimated to be under 10,000, and other species, such as the slender-billed vulture, have seen similar declines.

Social impact

With vultures so widely relied upon in India as a waste-disposal system, their sudden and dramatic disappearance had widespread consequences. Packs of feral dogs grew in number as the vultures declined, leading to an increase in attacks and the associated risks of rabies infections. Other diseases also increased, with the health costs to the Indian economy probably running into billions.

The problem wasn’t limited to India either, with vultures also vanishing fast from the skies in Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Vulture effect of diclofenac

Team vulture

Such a huge problem needed a massive conservation effort to tackle it. The RSPB became heavily involved in the late 90s, and many other groups also joined the fight. In 2011, 14 of these organisations formed a partnership called SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction), including the Bombay Natural History Society, The Peregrine Fund, and National Trust for Nature Conservation (Nepal). Today, the number of organisations involved in SAVE has risen to 24.   

The solution

The first step after identifying the diclofenac problem was finding an alternative for people to use. It was discovered that many other NSAIDs are equally toxic to vultures, but one drug, meloxicam, was found to be safe. In 2006, in a historic move, India, Pakistan and Nepal all banned the sale of diclofenac for veterinary use in favour of meloxicam. However, with high pricing of the drugs, and illegal sales, this wasn’t a quick-fix solution.

Vultures were also taken into captivity to start a breeding programme in case numbers fell critically low in the wild. It wasn’t known how successful this might be. But all three species targeted have now been bred in captivity, raising hopes that good numbers can be released once the deadly drugs have finally been removed from the natural environment.

Other measures, such as the creation of vulture safe zones, and education programmes are also under way, in an effort to spread the word about the dangers of diclofenac, and the importance of vultures in the ecosystem.

Vet drawing syringe of Diclofenac

An international effort

Asia’s embattled vultures are not out of trouble yet, and their numbers are so low, that it will take them a long time to recover. But a huge amount of work has taken place over the last 20 years to help them.

Some early positives signs are already being seen in Nepal, which was the first country to ban the sale of veterinary diclofenac, and the first country to release captive-reared and captive bred vultures back into the wild. These birds, some of which were released over two years ago, have been tracked with GPS telemetry tags, and none so far have shown signs of diclofenac poisoning, a good sign that the drug is no longer in use.

So, pretty or not, vultures have a lot of people rooting for them, with some dedicating their entire lives to bringing them back from the brink. There may be a long road still ahead, but with such amazing support, the vultures have every chance of making it.

White-backed vulture