Scruffy, seedy and sorely needed: why the decline of India's vultures
has become a threat to public health
By Michael McCarthy Environment Editor
04 February 2003
They might look ugly. They might look seedy. But the sudden steep
decline of India's vultures is producing alarm rather than celebration,
and presents the world with a new type of environmental problem.
Vanishing wildlife has long been seen as sad and unfortunate – think of
Britain's house sparrows – but in recent times it has rarely caused
widespread disruption to the people living in the same areas.
Yet the catastrophic population declines in three of India's most
common vulture species has led to just that, giving rise to serious
public health and social concerns across the sub-continent. Now Britain
is stepping in to help.
While their reputation and appearance may be scruffy and sordid to
Western eyes, vultures have long played an important role in keeping
Indian villages and towns clean by consuming cow carcasses. In
India,cows are sacred and are traditionally left in the open when they
die in their thousands every year.
The vanishing of the vultures has led to an explosion in India's
population of feral dogs, which are feasting on the unwanted carrion.
There are fears of a sharp rise in rabies, because feral dogs are the
main rabies carriers. More people die from rabies every year in India
than anywhere else.
The disappearance is also traumatic for India's Parsee community, who
leave their dead on so-called "towers of silence" so they can be eaten
by vultures in a "sky burial", which in many areas may no longer be
able to take place.
Now Britain is funding an emergency project to find a solution by
trying to identify the disease causing the birds' deaths, and if
possible, develop a cure. It will be run in a Vulture Care Centre in
Haryana, north of Delhi, paid for under the Darwin Initiative, the
international wildlife grants programme of the Department of
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The centre will be opened on
Friday by the Nature Protection minister, Elliot Morley, who will be in
India for a conference following up last year's World Summit on
Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.
"The decline of these birds has been so catastrophic that the feral dog
population has exploded, dramatically increasing the rabies risk," Mr
Morley said yesterday, stressing that the need for action was urgent.
The three species of vulture affected are the Indian white-backed
vulture, Gyps bengalensis, the long-billed vulture, Gyps indicus, and
the slender-billed vulture, Gyps tenuirostris. That all three belong to
the genus (or sub- family) Gyps is one reason scientists think a virus
may be responsible, although the agent has not been isolated.
There are fears that it may spread into Africa and Europe via migrating
individuals from two other Gyps species, the African white-backed
vulture Gyps africanus and the griffon vulture, Gyps fuscus, which
breeds across southern Europe from Spain to Greece.
Large-scale vulture deaths were first noticed at the end of the 1980s
in the Keoladeo National Park in eastern Rajasthan by Vibhu Prakash,
principal scientist of the Bombay Natural History Society. The birds
were ill and sluggish with drooping necks, dying after several weeks of
In the 1990s reports came in of deaths all across India, and in 2000
Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) helped to
organise a national population survey.
It showed that the white-backed vulture, of which there were once
millions, had declined by 96 per cent since 1992, while the other
species had declined by 92 per cent. All three are now listed as
"White-backed vultures were considered to be among the commonest large
birds of prey in the world," Dr Debbie Pain, the RSPB's head of
international research, who is involved with the project, said.
"They were super-abundant across India. Their numbers probably ran into
millions. Their collapse has been truly catastrophic."
As most vultures only lay single eggs and take about five years to
reach sexual maturity, reversing a population decline will be a long
and difficult exercise.
Dr Pain said the increase in the feral dog population not only raised
the risk of rabies for people, it made more likely the spread of the
disease to other animal species. The rise in rotting animal corpses
increased the risk of other diseases, such as anthrax. "This really is
important in terms of its impact on human society and the risks for
environmental health," she said.
The project is a partnership between the Bombay Natural History
Society, the RSPB and the Institute of Zoology.
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