Vultures were once a very common sight in India. Cows are kept for milk but very few ever end up on a plate. Of the estimated 500 million head of cattle in India, only 4% are destined for consumption by humans as meat. Dead cows have traditionally been vulture food.
It was noticed in the 1990’s that vulture numbers were in decline. The decline became precipitous. Vultures are now rare in India. In my recent trip to India I saw about ten individuals of two species, Egyptian Vulture and around the rocky outcrops at Siana, Indian Vulture.
The decline has led to an increase in feral dogs and rats. These have brought an increase in rabies, anthrax and plague. India now accounts for about 30,000 deaths from rabies each year, more than half the entire world’s total. 70% of victims are children under fifteen. Do not pat or feed the village dogs.
The cause of Vulture decline is diclofenac poisoning. This is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that has been used extensively in veterinary practice and also in humans. The first signs of toxicity are lethargy and a drooping neck. It is followed by renal failure and death within two days. I have used diclofenac for the occasional bout of trochenteric tendonitis. Sadly I am unfit for vulturine consumption.
The governments of India, Nepal and Pakistan banned veterinary use of the painkiller diclofenac in 2006. A safe alternative exists in Meloxicam. Diclofenac remains readily available for human use and sadly some is still misapplied in livestock. By the end of 2012 it seemed that populations were no longer declining but birds that were once common and widespread are now rare and vulnerable to extinction.