The terrible consequences of the widespread use of Diclofenac (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory veterinary drug) to treat domestic cattle in the Indian subcontinent have been largely discussed and documented since the mysterious declines of vulture populations (between 95-99% in less than 20 years) and Diclofenac were linked for the first time in 2003. The fast reaction and combined efforts of NGOs, scientific community and the Governments managed to force a ban on the drug in the region, which resulted in a slowdown of this decline, although numbers of most species were incredibly depleted. The conservation actions undertaken to revert the crisis have now started to show some encouraging results, but the battle is far from over.
Only last month, on the 25th of October, the High Court of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu in Southern India ratified the ban on multi-dose vials of Diclofenac, siding with the conservationists of SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction, a confederation of conservation groups) against the pledge of two powerful pharmaceutical companies. Even though the sale of large vials of Diclofenac for treating cattle was officially banned in India in 2006, pharmaceutical companies bypassed the veto by selling multi-dose 30 ml vials supposedly for human treatment. After years of dispute in court, where the conservationists had to prove that these vials were far too large for human use and those vials were therefore just an illegitimate way of keeping Diclofenac available for farmers, the High Court finally prohibited the commercialization of the 30 ml vials in 2015, limiting the volume to 3 ml per vial. This decision was appealed by the pharmaceutical companies, on a process that lasted for two years and reached an encouraging final verdict last week: India is going to support its endangered vultures in their plight for survival.
Besides the legal tools, there are several other actions under way in India aimed at saving vultures from the brink of extinction. Captive breeding started in 2001 as an emergency measure in response to the acute population crash that had been observed in all Gyps species in the subcontinent. The first centre that was created for this purpose, the Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre (JCBC) in Pinjore (Northern India), has grown to become the world’s largest vulture breeding centre, housing three critically endangered species (Gyps indicus, G. tenuirostris and G. bengalensis) and one threatened species (G. himalayensis). In July this year a staff of the VCF, David Izquierdo, was invited to visit the centre to learn from the experience in captive breeding and management of Dr. Vibhu Prakash (principal scientist of the Bombay Natural History Society and Programme Head for vultures) and Dr. Nikita Prakash (Coordinator of the captive breeding programme), as well as sharing our work on the Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) EEP. The Prakash, recipients of the ‘Save the Species’ award in 2016, have bred over 225 vultures and helped in the establishment of 7 new breeding centres all over the country. This year they started releasing vultures into the wild for the first time.
We read a lot about the situation of vultures in India, but knowing about it and actually experiencing it yourself cannot be compared. Wherever you go you hear stories about how common these large raptors were not long ago, from the hundreds of Egyptian vultures feeding around the grounds of Keoladeo National Park, to the reported 400 pairs of Indian vultures breeding on the mountain sides of the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur. Now there are just a few Egyptian vultures flying high in Keoladeo and just 4 pairs in Jodhpur, almost as a sad reminder of what it once was and might never be again. But let´s focus on the positives - no matter how difficult the past was, the vultures are still there and didn’t go extinct; and where there is life, there is still hope.