Save the Vultures from Extinction
The Indian subcontinent was home to tens of millions of vultures. Since 1985 however, the population of vultures has been steadily declining. By the 1990s, it was confirmed that 92% of the vultures had vanished across all regions in northern India. A 2007 survey found that a staggering 99.9% of the oriental white-backed vultures had declined over the preceding 15 years. The long-billed and sender-billed vultures declined at similar rates across the whole of South Asia.
Research biologists from the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) and the Ornithological Society of Pakistan (OSP) joined hands with international partners RSPB (UK), Zoological Society of London (UK) and the Peregrine Fund (USA) to solve the mystery of vulture declines.
In 2020, Savera Charitable Trust joins the SAVE Movement.
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- 40 million vultures have been killed due to diclofenac
- 99.9% of the white-backed vultures have been wiped out
- 2025 is the year we hope to reinstate vultures by 40%
By donating 400 Rupees a month, you’ll be contributing to a secure future for Indian vultures and for all South Asia (donation: one-time donation and monthly donation)
- The Mystery Behind the Rapid Decline of Vultures
The Rapid Decline
Through the collection of dead and dying vulture carcasses, researchers quickly established that 84% of dead birds in India, Nepal and Pakistan were characterized by the presence of extensive visceral gout. Visceral gout is caused by a buildup of uric acid, which at very high levels crystallizes in the body thus coating all internal organs in a white ‘paste’. The presence of visceral gout in vultures suggested that the cause of death was likely to be related to kidney failure. In fact, some birds appeared sick and lethargic for a protracted period before death, with a characteristic ‘drooping head’.
Dead birds were tested for pesticides, herbicides, toxic heavy metals, and other environmental pollutants. Nonetheless, researchers were baffled to find that while trace levels of some of these compounds were detected, in the majority they were at insufficient levels to cause physiological damage. Furthermore, there was no link between these compounds and gout found in most dead birds.
The Diclofenac Breakthrough
Then, in 2003, came the diclofenac breakthrough. Researchers working for the Ornithological Society of Pakistan and The Peregrine Fund, led by Professor Lindsay Oaks from Washington State University, USA, recognized a link between a class of painkiller known as Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) to kidney failure and cases of visceral gout in birds. Visiting pharmaceutical stores in Pakistan, the team found that the new, NSAID, diclofenac, had recently come on sale and was commonly available. Investigations of carcasses showed that every bird that had visceral gout also had traces of diclofenac and those with no gout had no diclofenac. The team then gave diclofenac to vultures, either by injecting birds or by feeding flesh from buffalo and goats injected with diclofenac, and birds that received a high dose of diclofenac died within days of treatment, with extensive visceral gout.
In 2004 the results of this work were published in the journal Nature and extensive research was conducted which established the same correlation between gout and diclofenac in India and Nepal.
Alternatives to Diclofenac
The conclusive findings on diclofenac, as the main cause of vulture declines in South Asia, led to its official ban in India. However, diclofenac is not the only vulture-toxic Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drug (NSAID) in use. Other veterinary vulture-toxic NSAIDS are now competing in the market, namely: aceclofenac, carprofen, flunixin, ketoprofen, nimesulide and phenylbutazone.
The only known vulture-safe NSAID is meloxicam. Trials with meloxicam show no indication of harm, with all birds surviving, and no evidence of elevation of the concentration of uric acid in the blood, which occurs shortly before death in vultures treated with diclofenac and other NSAIDs. This trial, conducted in South Africa, tested meloxicam by administering it directly to vultures by giving it orally through a tube and by feeding tissues of livestock that were slaughtered shortly after they had been treated with a veterinary dose of the drug (thereby replicating the way that wild birds are exposed to meloxicam).
Similar trials were then conducted and published in India providing further impetus to the promotion of this safe drug in Asia.
- Vultures are Important to Human Life
Vulture Carcass Disposal
In India and Nepal cows have a sacred status for Hindus and are not eaten. As a result, livestock carcasses became available for vultures in Asia and became their principal food source. In fact, vultures are extremely effective and efficient scavengers with the capacity to reduce an adult cow carcass to bare bones within an hour. This rapid cleaning mechanism has been the traditional way of disposing of carcass in Asia and communities continue to place carcasses of animals on the outskirts of villages or at large municipal dumps.
During the early 1990s there were an estimated 100-160 million vultures in India that consumed around 20 million tons of carrion annually. The collapse of vulture numbers in the Indian subcontinent means that there is now an abundance of available meat and caresses across the region – a gap that other scavengers are now rising in population to fill.
Filling the Gap
With the almost complete collapse in vulture numbers, South Asia has now lost 99% of its carcass disposal system. Vulture declines have been associated with an increase in feral dogs across the region – population that was numbered at 17-18 million in the early 1980s, reached 30 million in 2005.
At carcass dumps the situation is severe with packs of several hundred dogs taking the place of the hundreds or thousands of vultures that used to be present. Such large packs of dogs are highly aggressive and the Indian press has reported several cases of children and adults being killed. Moreover, the increase in dog numbers and rotting animal carcasses has major implications for the potential risk of both human and animal diseases, such as, anthrax, brucellosis and tuberculosis. A major concern is that the rise feral dog population also furthers the spread of rabies in the region.
Rabies in India
Currently, India has the highest incidence of rabies in the world. About 60% of all documented cases are reported in India (equaling 20,000 cases each year). Of these, 96% is a result of dog bites. An economic evaluation shows that between 1993-2006 alone, the costs associated with the decline of vultures combined with the management and cost of rabies would have amounted to the US $ 34 billion.
The costs to conserve vultures are a fraction of this total.
- Let’s Save the Vultures from Extinction (SAVE)
(Infographic) Vultures are essential to a balanced ecosystem. Our international partners are conducting thorough investigations and monitoring programs to ensure the safety of vultures in the future. Your generous contributions are enabling us to,
- Monitor Population and Colony: to analyze population trends for resident vultures and highlight breeding colonies in need of protection through working with local communities.
- Research Veterinary Drugs: to facilitate the identification of safe alternatives to diclofenac and introduce these into the veterinary marketplace.
- Monitor Diclofenac: to quantify levels of diclofenac in cattle carcasses available to vultures in India and additionally, visit and survey pharmaceutical shops in India and Nepal to measure the availability of different veterinary drugs.
- Monitor Vulture Populations: to study the trends of more than a dozen populations of Gypsand non-Gypsvultures in South and South-East Asia. In India we conduct nationwide surveys for the white-rumped, long-billed, slender-billed, red-head, and Egyptian vultures using more than 15,000 km of road transects every four years.
- Monitor NSAIDs in Pharmacies and Livestock Carcasses: to determine what NSAIDs are likely being used in a given area with a focus on diclofenac, meloxicam, and approximately 10 other NSAIDs.
- Experiment NSAID Safety-Testing: to determine both vulture-toxic and vulture-safe compounds. While safety-testing can result in mortalities of vulture through NSAID poisoning, our experiments are designed to minimize vulture mortalities and meet international animal ethical standards.
- Examine Dead Raptors for Cause of Death: to expand our knowledge of what species are threatened by veterinary NSAIDs and what veterinary NSAIDs are toxic to raptors.
- Examine the Ecology and Causes of Death in Red-Headed Vultures: to study specifically this forgotten, critically endangered vulture specie as it is different to the Gypsvultures and not well understood.
- Monitor Wild and Captive-Release Vultures with Satellite Telemetry: to collect data on vulture movement, ranges, and behaviors in order to find important nesting sites. If tagged birds are ill, injured, or dead we can also locate and treat or examine them.
- Research the Costs of the Loss of Vultures: to study the actual monetary cost of sanitation and disease control in a number of locations before and after the vulture declines; and to investigate the overall environment, economic and cultural costs associated with the loss of vultures in South Asia.
- Our International Partner: Society for the Protection of Birds, UK
In 2020 Savera, BirdLife International, and the Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) join hands to Save the Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) in the Indian subcontinent through specie recovery programs.
For more information, please visit https://save-vultures.org
To see SAVE International Core Partners, please visit https://save-vultures.org/partners/