Wings of hope and despair

Wings of hope and despair

Banned drug causing kidney failure in vultures

Vultures in their natural habitat in Punjab.

The Parsi community will vouch for what vultures can do as waste managers. They have traditionally disposed of the dead by feeding them to vultures, which no longer is the case, for there are precious few of these natural scavengers left. 

But there’s hope, even amid grave looming concerns that many say jeopardise much of the efforts that have gone into protecting these highly endangered species in the last decade or so. Till about six years ago, only a couple of dozen vultures were spotted in Punjab’s Pathankot belt. It's more than 300 now, and environmentalists at least don’t dispute this anymore. Call it whatever--the rise in vulture population or simply an act of better scientific bird watching--their numbers in this border belt is fueling hope. But behind this picture of hope, if not so much a success story lies a sordid
reality.

Punjab’s enthusiasm to save vultures was reflected when it set up three vulture restaurants in Gurdaspur district to provide these big birds carcasses on a platter everyday. These vulture restaurants are at designated spots where the officials would leave a dead ani­mal for scavengers to feed on. Two of them lie abandoned as there are no vultures that fly down to eat in these restaurants. The problem is more than just the logistics of supplying meat from nearby villages to these vulture restaurants.

The carcass served in these vulture restaurants is not tested for Diclofenac, a livestock painkiller, that is believed to be the main cause for the catastrophic deaths of vultures. A vulture dies of acute kidney failure within a few days of consuming meat from the carcass of livestock once treated with the Diclofenac drug, experts have inferred after prolonged diagnosis and study.

Environmentalists feel it’s a ticking bomb that could undo much of what has gone into saving and reviving vultures.

Talking to Deccan Herald, conservationist and honorary wildlife warden, Punjab, SS Bajwa said that in the absence of testing of the carcass, there is every possibility that the vultures consume traces of Diclofenac that may have been used in the livestock by farmers. “The issue needs to be immediately addressed since the ban on this veterinary drug is ineffective.

Its use in livestock still continues in villages.  In Nepal, such restaurants have succeeded because of the stress being laid on every aspect of vulture conservation,” Bajwa said. More than 99 per cent of vulture population has vanished in South Asia. The wildlife department looks for saving grace in a mere written declaration on “no-Diclofenac use” in livestock that it takes from villages before transporting carcass to vulture restaurants. Officials seek refuge under the fact that the numbers have soared and that the carcasses now do not rot for weeks inside and outside village territories.

Every year the months from November to January provide hope. This is the breeding period when female  vultures lay single egg that is incubated for two months.
But the concerns on use of Diclofenac leaves Bajwa restive. He said: “Traditionally villagers left dead animals in the open outside the village or in the forest areas where vultures would come and feed on them.

The system of setting up these feeding stations is no different, but meaningless unless the meat and carcass are tested for traces of Diclofenac.”  Another issue that has caused concern is the inadequate fencing of these vulture restaurants. These venues on the border of J&K and Himachal Pradesh are often raided by wild dogs and jackals, forcing vultures to feed elsewhere. A plan is erect concrete walls on all sides of these feeding stations is likely to be executed shortly.

Not far away in Haryana, the revival of these endangered species is gaining strength through process of captive breeding. The Vulture Breeding Centre in Pinjore in Haryana near Chandigarh, set up in collaboration with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the state government, has several young ones growing strong in captivity. In the last three years, at least 20 vulture chicks have been born in captivity. At the centre, vultures are a pampered lot. Meat is tested before it is fed to vultures. The centre makes sure there are no attempts to interfere with privacy of these birds. Scientists monitor them through CCTV cameras placed in all enclosures. These scavengers need to bathe everyday and freshly topped water is made available each day. These birds rest on rough surfaces and have perches tied with coconut coir in their aviaries which are built with bamboo and barbed wires.

Diclofenac effect?

The BNHS has been regularly conducting post-mortem on vultures that are collected from the wild, including areas in Gujarat and Jharkhand. Nearly 76 per cent autopsy reports still suggest death due to visceral gout, a disease of kidney failure in vultures due to the intake of  Diclofenac drug, BNHS sources said. The genesis of the problem of vulture’s going extinct was traced to Diclofenac, a non steroidal, anti-inflammatory pain reliever, which was effective for both humans and animals.

The drug was commonly and excessively used on animals by cattle owners and doctors, traces of which were left in carcasses on which the vultures fed. Kidney failure followed. The government was quick to act. In 2006, it banned the manufacture of Diclofenac as a veterinary drug. But its lax enforcement in the country and ready availability is only letting the problem persist.

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