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They may not have the beauty of a peacock or voice of a Cuckoo, but vultures play a vital ecological role in the food chain by feeding on dead animals which would otherwise spread disease and contaminate the surroundings. During the 1980’s India had the highest density of vultures. Today, population of vultures has declined drastically.Various estimates place the figures at 60000, down from 40 million birds. 

Slender Billed Vulture Image Source: Wildlife Trust of India

Slender Billed Vulture Image Source: Wildlife Trust of India

One of the main reasons for the decline in the number of vultures is the use of the drug Diclofenac for veterinary purposes, said the Chief Conservator of Forest Akhouri Subir Kumar Sinha.

Diclofenac is the drug used to treat sick livestock that die and are  left for scavengers.Vultures feed on the livestock treated with diclofenac and die. Diclofenac has been found to cause kidney failure in vultures.  In 2006, Government of India banned the production and sale of diclofenac.

The decline in population of vultures can also be attributed to decline in forest areas or trees which these birds call home, and rapid urban development which eliminates open spaces where dead animals were abandoned. These grounds used to be ‘prey ground’ for vultures.

Reversing the decline is a slow process. Vultures do not breed until they are five years old and produce only one egg each year.

Government of India launched a ‘Vulture conservation program’ this month. Captive breeding centres for vultures have been set up at zoos in Bhopal, Bhubaneswar, Junagarh, and Hyderabad.

“Birds can only be saved from extinction through banning the retail sale of Diclofenac, promotion of the safe alternative, Meloxicam, and the capture of more birds for the breeding programme,” Neeta Shah, working with the Bombay Natural History Society for the bird’s protection said.

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