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February 28, 2011

Vultures on the verge of extinction


Web Desk
February 28, 2011

Seeing vultures flying high in the sky is already a thing of the past in most parts of the country. Any further delay in starting efforts for conservation will lead to extinction of these ‘natural scavengers’ in five years.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has changed the status of long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus) and slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘critically endangered’ species in South Asia, including Pakistan.
According to Save Our Species (SOS), a global coalition initiated by three founding partners IUCN, GEF and World Bank, vultures are specialised feeders in the ecosystem with the ability to consume carcasses to the bone. Without vultures, these carcasses would rot and taken over by disease-causing organisms that cause anthrax and botulism.
“Vultures have an extremely important ecological role as they are sanitizers of nature and their decline would eventually increase the stray dog population, which is also a health hazard for human communities,” said a report compiled by the SOS.
The Peregrine Fund, an Idaho-based conservation group, revealed that the rate of decline in population of vultures in Pakistan was observed to be much higher than that in India. Vultures take about 5 years to reach reproductive maturity, and most vultures only lay one egg per season.
In 2004, the Peregrine Fund published a study in the journal ‘Nature’ identifying the veterinary use of livestock drug diclofenac, as the contaminant causing vulture populations to crash by up to 99 per cent. The three species affected are Oriental White-Backed, Long-Billed and Slender-Billed vultures.
Though some of the experts never accept this viewpoint but the majority of conservationists have claimed that the decline in vulture population has been caused by the pharmaceutical drug Diclofenac, widely used to treat livestock. They said that the drug accumulates in kidneys of

vultures, which feed on the carcasses of animals treated with Diclofenac, and this leads to renal failure and death in a few days. Pakistan, India and Nepal have banned the veterinary use of the drug in 2006, but monitoring shows that the birds continue to be exposed to it.
The data compiled by the environment ministry stated that in all there are nine species of vultures found in South Asia. Four of the Gyps vulture species are only found in Asia. These are Oriental White-Backed vulture (Gyps benegalensis), Long-Billed vulture (Gyps indicus), Slender-Billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) and Himalayan Griffon Vulture (Gyps himalayensis).
According to a survey conducted by Dhartee Development Society (DDS), there are scattered vulture nests in tall trees in the desert outside of Nangar Parkar. As part of efforts to protect this specie from extinction DDS opened up a Vulture Restaurant in Nangar Parkar (Tharparkar district) where most of the birds of the endangered Gyps Vulture are found. It is believed that with the provision of safe food at the Vulture Restaurant, the conservation of this endangered bird in Pakistan can be made possible.
The issue of extinction of vultures also has some importance for religious community Parsis that hold fire and earth to be sacred elements and according to them the earth should not be polluted by corpses. Burial and cremation are unacceptable to Parsis and their dead are consigned to vultures by placing them on mountaintops or on specially built ‘Towers of Silence’. But now there are not enough vultures to eat the dead.
It is quite encouraging that the institutions and organisations involved in vulture conservation in Pakistan, India and Nepal have joined hands to protect the declining vultures and agreed to initiate obtaining, holding and breeding three gyps species of endangered vultures in captivity as a safety measure until the threat of diclofenac is removed from the environment.
Talking to this scribe tourism and environmental expert, Najeebur Rehman said vultures have one of the key roles in natural eco system and decline in their population has started showing its negative effects as “we are witnessing spread of asthma especially in urban areas of the country.”
Referring to various health reports he said diseases like asthma and allergies are fast spreading in the society and absence of vultures in the eco system is one of the major factors that are causing spread of such fatal diseases.
Najeeb said it is believed that use of wildlife drug diclofenac is mainly responsible for extinction of vultures in many parts of the country and now there is a time to address this issue with proper legislation and implementation over the rules.
He said people living in the villages sometime sprinkle poison over dead bodies of cows and other animals to target stray dogs, but in this process vultures become one of the prime targets so this practice should also be stopped with the help of local communities.

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