Magazine article New Internationalist

Coming Back from the Brink?

Magazine article New Internationalist

Coming Back from the Brink?

Article excerpt

Two mangy dogs tug at the flesh of an animal carcass among piles of dirt and rubbish. The wind carries a strong, nauseatingly sweet, rotting smell. There are people, too, at this dump just outside Chandigarh in the northern Indian state of Haryana, children and adults sifting through rubbish for anything useable or saleable. Filling the sky above are hundreds of birds: black kites, egrits, wagtails, crows. But, strangely, no vultures. 'Twenty years ago, there'd have been scores of vultures around a place like this,' says Chris Bowden, a Species Recovery Officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Vulture numbers started to decline rapidly in the early 1990s in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The cause was diclofenac, a cheap and effective painkiller and antiinflammatory, which began to be used widely on cattle. Vultures today are 'critically endangered'.

'The conservative estimate is there were 40 million vultures across India and Nepal in the early 1990s. The declines were really dramatic,' says Bowden. Year on year, oriental whitebacks saw an annual decline of 40 per cent. 'For that species, we can say categorically we had a 99.9 per cent decline. Vultures were on the brink of extinction.'

Vultures play a vital clean-up role in the ecosystem. Without them, carcasses are leftto rot, spreading disease. The feral dog population in India has boomed with so much additional carcass meat. Rabies is a major issue. Disposing of carcasses without 'nature's way' is also expensive and hazardous. There's a cultural effect too - India's Parsi community now finds it difficult to conduct traditional funerals which require leaving their dead to be consumed by vultures.

India banned veterinary use of diclofenac in 2006, with Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh following suit. A recent RSPB survey shows the ban is working. 'It was the first good news in a while,' says Bowden. 'Because so few vultures are left, it's hard to say with confidence that they've started to recover. But there are indications that encourage us.'

A short drive from the dump, just outside the town of Pinjore, is a captive breeding centre run by Vibhu Prakash of the Bombay Natural History Society, supported by the RSPB. Some 160 vultures are kept here, 46 of which have been successfully bred since the centre opened in 2001. …

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