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A catastrophic decline in the number of Asian vultures due to the continued use of drugs in livestock means the noble, if picky, birds could be extinct within a decade.

A research project by the Bombay Natural History Society across India, Pakistan, and Nepal, showed that overall numbers of Asian vultures are declining by 50 per cent a year, the fastest decline ever in a bird species, barring asteroids crashing into the earth.

One species, the white backed vulture, has collapsed from about 30 million birds in the early 90s to about 11,000 today. The slender-billed and long-billed vultures are both down by about 97 per cent over the same period.

At this rate, vultures are disappearing faster than the dodo, long the poster bird for rapid extermination of species. Their decline would leave an ecological gap that would leave the way open for less savoury scavengers, such as feral dogs and rats.

In the vultures’ case, it’s not hunting that’s the problem, but the use of anti-inflammatory diclofenac in domesticated cattle. The drug causes rapid kidney failure in the birds, with a single dead cow being enough to wipe out an entire flock.

The Indian government imposed restrictions on the use of the drug in cattle two years ago, however it is still available for humans, and it seems implausible that it is not still finding its way into cattle. The bird’s leisurely reproductive cycle doesn’t help.

While Westerners may think of them purely as scavengers, we’ve been assured that vultures flying over an Indian village is seen as a good thing, on the basis that if there are no vultures, there is no life.

The birds have powerful associations in Indian culture, with resonances as both guardians and avengers. Kolkata’s parsi community relies on the birds to help dispose of their dead in its legendary Towers of Silence.

The Bombay Natural History Society has been campaigning against the use of diclofenac, and has also pushed a captive breeding programme. However, just finding enough birds to pursue a captive breeding programme is, apparently, a problem. ®

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