Urgent plea to save Asia's vultures
Three species of vulture in Asia are threatened with imminent extinction unless swift action is taken to protect them.
Research published in the latest edition of Nature, by the US-based organisation The Peregrine Fund and the Ornithological Society of Pakistan (BirdLife in Pakistan), shows that diclofenac, a drug used in the treatment of livestock, is a major cause of the massive vulture declines taking place in Asia.
Members of the BirdLife network including the Bombay Natural History Society (BirdLife in India), Bird Conservation Nepal (BirdLife in Nepal), and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), have joined other conservation organisations to urge governments of countries with vulture populations to ban the use of this drug in livestock. It is believed the recovery of vulture populations in southern Asia will not be effective until their exposure to diclofenac has been removed.
"The decline of Asian vultures is one of the steepest declines experienced by any bird species, and is certainly faster than that suffered by the Dodo before its extinction. If nothing is done these vulture species will become extinct." —Dr Debbie Pain, RSPB
The new research shows that feeding on the carcasses of animals recently treated with diclofenac kills vultures. A mathematical model of this problem has been developed by Dr Rhys Green and colleagues at the RSPB. The first results of this work, which will be presented at the forthcoming Kathmandu Summit on the vulture crisis, indicate that the observed rate of vulture population decline, a fall of 30% per year, can be induced even if less than 1 in 200 of the carcasses available to vultures contain lethal amounts of diclofenac.
"We first noticed the declines in India at Keoladeo National Park World Heritage Site in the mid-1990s, and have been spearheading vulture research and conservation efforts ever since." —Dr Vibhu Prakash, BNHS
In the 1980s, the White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis was thought to be the most abundant large bird of prey in the world, but in little over a decade, the population has crashed by more than 99%, with the loss of tens of millions of birds. As a result, the species was classified as Critically Endangered in 2000, along with the closely related Slender-billed Gyps tenuirostris and Indian Vultures Gyps indicus. This status recognises that these species are now at greater risk of global extinction than other more high-profile wildlife species in Asia such as the Tiger and Great Indian Rhinoceros.
"The Asian vulture crisis is one of the world’s most important conservation priorities. The RSPB is committing significant resources to a programme to ensure that these birds have a future." —Dr Mark Avery, RSPB
Currently, the use of diclofenac to treat livestock appears to be largely restricted to countries in southern Asia, including India, Pakistan and Nepal. However, there are concerns that, were this drug to be used in a similar way in Africa, the Middle East or Europe, it might affect closely related species in these regions too.