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It is only of late that the services vultures render to the ecosystem are being appreciated—and missed. It is ironical that this bird has caught the interests of scientists and laymen alike when most species have been declared critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature reports Down To Earth.

There are nine vulture species found in India: Oriental White-backed Vulture, Long-billed Vulture, Slender-billed Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, Indian Griffon Vulture, Himalayan Griffon, Cinereous Vulture, Red-headed Vulture and Bearded Vulture.

The first three were once common. Unfortunately, their populations have declined precariously since the 1990s—a whopping 97 per cent of these three species have been lost. In India, Nepal and Pakistan, veterinary use of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac has been cited as the main, and perhaps the only, cause of the decline.

The drug was once commonly prescribed by veterinarians as a painkiller and for relief for fever to domesticated cattle. It is now well known that vultures are exposed to diclofenac when they feed on carcasses of livestock that die within a few days of treatment—and so carry residues of the drug. Given that up to 200 vultures have been sighted as feeding on a medium-sized carcass, one poisoned carcass can kill a huge number of the birds.

Once the causative agent was identified, the government devised a recovery plan: one, identifying a safe alternative drug; two, purging diclofenac from the environment; and three, establishing a full-scale conservation breeding programme for reintroduction of the bird once diclofenac was removed. Some gains have been made. A safe alternative called meloxicam has been identified, and is becoming more widely used now that it is out of patent and can be manufactured cheaply.

A recent three-day vulture estimation exercise at the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh threw up encouraging results, with some 1,700 vultures counted in the periphery of the protected area.

Captive breeding centres in India run by the Bombay Natural History Society, with support from the UK-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have been able to rear 18 birds in 2011, almost double the number the previous year. Other vulture conservation programmes in Assam and Gujarat have reported important advances through the education of veterinarians and livestock owners to avoid treatment of terminally ill livestock, or to bury or burn carcasses of recently treated animals.

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