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‘Decline in vulture population has given rise to diseases’: Dr Vibhu Prakash

Principal Scientist, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and Programme Head, National Level Vulture Conservation team, Dr Vibhu Prakash underlines how vultures are important for the survival of humans.

Written by Srishti Choudhary |
August 29, 2016 3:48:45 am
Dr Vibhu Prakash.  Express Photo Dr Vibhu Prakash. Express Photo

Enlighten us how decreasing population of vultures is posing a problem?

The situation is very grave. As per estimate, there were 40 million birds in our country and by 2007 we had lost about 99.9 per cent of them. Only a small population of bird species remain. This is the steepest decline of any species anywhere in the world. Vultures are long lived and are slow in breeding. It starts breeding only when it is at least 6-year-old and only 50 per cent of them survive. It can cause extinction and urgent measures are required. Though conservation through breeding is not the best option, but it is an insurance against extinction. At least, the birds we have kept in captivity will not die.

Is the population of vultures decreasing only in India or across the globe?

Unfortunately, the population is decreasing across the globe. In South Asia, it is dying of drug poisoning. In Africa, they are being killed by poachers. Till 1990s, vultures were not critically endangered, except for the Californian Condor. But now, white-backed, slender billed, king vultures are being listed in the critically endangered category.

Has the decreasing vulture population affected other species, especially scavengers?

Certainly. The decline has resulted in steep increase in population of feral dogs, although, it is difficult to quantify, as their population is very high. Earlier, when one visited the carcass dumps, they would see that vultures would descend and take over of the carcass and dogs were forced to stay away. But now, the population of dogs have increased because there is lot of food on the offing.

Has it affected human health?

Yes, it has led to increase in the population of dogs, which carry all kinds of diseases, including rabies. Dead animal or humans promotes breeding of all kinds of pathogens. Before, vultures used to feed on carcasses before bacteria could multiply. Since their decline, there has been a spurt in such diseases. But, as diseases are found in abundance it is difficult to quantify these observations through research.

Do you think depiction of vultures’ in children’s books as predatory, dangerous creatures justified?

The depiction is completely wrong. Right from the beginning, we are known to look down on scavengers. Nobody tells children how important scavenging is for nature. Those who are living will only survive when the dead are properly disposed off. One should enlighten the children that if the body is not disposed off properly it can give birth to diseases. For survival of humans, vultures are important because they feed on the dead.

When did you decide to start working for the conservation of vultures?

I was working on my PhD programme which focused on monitoring the population of raptors. In mid 1990s, I realised that population of vultures was declining and I began investigating the matter. Raptors are bio-indicators. So, if you are studying raptors, you will know, what is happening to the eco-system.

You were part of the Indian team which concluded that the drug Diclofenac was the reason behind declining population of vultures. What led this to this investigation?

It was first discovered by the US scientists in Pakistan. We were working in India and we found that a number of dead birds were suffering from visceral gout. We found vultures sitting with their necks dropped. At first, we thought they were sick and wanted to treat them, but eventually they died. Scientists in Pakistan came out with findings about Diclofenac, after which we tested preserved vulture tissues and found that 76 % vultures died because of visceral gout which contained residues of the drug. It was quite a strong evidence. We looked for Diclofenac in cattle carcass and found 10% of them contained the drug. The evidences were strong enough to conclude that vultures were dying because of it. The research was conducted in 2003 but the paper was published in 2004.

In 2006, the drug was banned for veterinary use. Tell us something about it.

In 2004, we prepared the Vulture Recovery Plan and recommended banning the drug for veterinary use. Secondly, we wanted to find an alternative to the drug and also we wanted to start the conservation breeding programme. We lobbied with the government and they finally banned it in 2006. Initially, they were hesitant because Diclofenac was a useful drug for cattle, which comprises a huge population in the country. We looked for a safe drug through a global search and found a drug called Meloxicam. It’s good for cattle and does not cause any mortality in vultures. We recommended it and the ban was imposed.

How effective has the ban been?

In 2006, prevalence of the drug in cattle carcasses was 10 % and in 2007, it came down to about 8 % and it further reduced to 6 % in 2011. We conducted a search for the availability of the drug in markets and found that there was no veterinary Diclofenac available, but multi dose vial for human was available. These vials were being misused on cattle, which resulted in mortality.

What all needs to be done?

We recommended the government to restrict the use of multi-dose vial of Diclofenac for humans and in July 2015 onwards, human formulation of the drug is being sold only in single vial of 3 ml only. We want prevalence of the drug to come down to less than 1 per cent in cattle carcass to save vultures.

How have the human habits affected the whole eco-system?

We are irresponsible and selfish. Why do we dispose waste, when we can remove it totally? We just cannot be sentimental fools, saying, “I will preserve it, but will not remove stuff”. Nature is ruthless and organised. If you disturb it, you will face the consequences.

What’s the role of society and how can a common man help in this regard?

One should become more responsible. We take shower everyday but take pleasure at making other places dirty. Don’t throw garbage outside. Other species have right to live. There are certain areas that we must keep safe and we should not do interfere. I don’t believe that we can co-exist in all things. Make sure that we do not throw food around. It must be kept in containers. We need to keep our houses sanitised and avoid confrontation and conflict with animals.

Asia’s first Gyps Reintroduction programme was launched on June 4. What support do you seek from the society for its success?

When we release the birds, people should report to us whenever they spot them. If they happen to find them sick, they should bring the matter to our notice. Avoid using Diclofenac in cattles. Whenever they treat cattle, ensure that the drug is not being used. Don’t go to quacks but get the cattle treated from a qualified veterinary doctor.

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