Spare a thought for the scrawny vultures – those once-familiar birds of prey which used to circle lazily high in the air, scanning for anything to scavenge. In my youth, they even perched on tall tadgola trees in suburban Mumbai, peering disdainfully at the goings-on below. People may be forgiven for wondering why anyone should shed a tear about the disappearance of these ungainly beasts with scruffy, elongated necks and menacing beaks.

Indian vulture. Pic: Campbell Murn, The Hawk Conservancy.

Just two decades ago, there were 85 million in this country; they are now estimated to number just a paltry 3-4,000. The one community that is only too well aware of this phenomenon are the Parsis, the descendants of exiles from Persia who still resort in Mumbai and a few other cities to dispose of their dead in the Towers of Silence – by exposing them on open platforms where vultures, kites and crows are supposed to dispose of them cleanly, speedily and efficiently.

Due to the rampant urbanization and the proliferation of high-rises, vultures can no longer land and take off as they once used to from the two towers in Mumbai, where most of the world's Parsis are based. In city after city, in India and Pakistan, these towers are being closed. But there is another, far more sinister, reason for the disappearance of these birds, which lies in the countryside.

Over the last decade, the 155-year-old Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), one of the most reputed wildlife research organisations in South Asia, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the UK, the Zoological Society of London and the Peregrine Fund in the U.S., began to put their heads together to find out what was responsible for the sudden decline in the vulture population. The Peregrine Fund traced the cause in Pakistan to an anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac, which veterinarians also introduced into India at the same time. A much smaller threat are aircraft, including those of the Indian Air Force, which hit the birds at high altitudes. Diclofenac is also used by humans.

If cattle, buffaloes, sheep or goats injected with this commonly used pain-relieving drug die of natural causes and are consumed by vultures, it causes the birds to suffer from dehydration when uric acid forms, leading to gout in the viscera and eventual kidney failure and death. It does not, as may be imagined, lead to accumulation of chemicals in the body, like DDT; even a one-time ingestion can prove fatal to the vultures. Scientists show that even if 1% of carcasses contain diclofenac, it can lead to such a precipitate decline in this raptor population. BNHS' examination of 1,800 samples from around the country show the actual prevalence of diclofenac in carcasses is ten times higher.

Little surprise then that India, Nepal and Pakistan have in the short period of 15 years lost 95% of their vulture population. There are eight species in the region. In 2000, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed three species as critically endangered, which is the highest category under risk. Two years later, all three were similarly listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, which also applies to the tiger and one-horned rhino.

Three vulture species are listed under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, which also applies to the tiger and one-horned rhino.

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The precarious situation has been also been recorded on film. At a recent launch of a shortened version of his film titled The Vanishing Vultures in Mumbai, the Delhi-based film-maker Mike Pandey pointed out why it was important to save these unpopular birds. Although they are dismissed as dirty scavengers, "they are the vital link between death and life," he said, because in their absence, carrion lies unattended and breeds diseases, several of which may be unknown to humans in future. This is yet another reminder of nature's role in recycling potentially harmful waste. A flock of vultures has the ability to dispose of an ox-sized animal in just 30 minutes. "We have lost a critical link in the food chain," Pandey warned.

According to Dr Asad Rahmani, the BNHS Director, who noticed a decline in this raptor species at the world-famous Bharatpur bird sanctuary much earlier, India, which has the largest cattle population in the world, is especially at risk. As many as 10-20 million cattle which die of natural causes every year can lie and rot in the sun, preyed upon by dogs and crows, instead of vultures, says Rahmani*. Pandey observed that these "are breeding grounds which can unleash pathogens throughout the world." He has visited villages in Gujarat where 18 children have died of rabies: the dogs which carried this highly communicable disease could conceivably have consumed such carrion. Equally worrisome is that Anthrax – which caused such a scare post 9/11 in the U.S. -- has once again surfaced in this state.

Diclofenac is cheap, and is used by thousands of poor herders, which is largely the problem. There are some 25 companies that formulate this drug and 110 companies that market Rs.25 crore worth annually. The companies claim that it does not form a major part of their operations and could cooperate, provided the government subsidised their switch-over to a substitute called meloxicam, which is used in the West.

However, at the Indian National Board for Wildlife meeting in March last year, under pressure from wildlife enthusiasts, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who chairs the board, ordered that its use be discontinued in the country within six months. However, the Drugs Controller has still not acted on this directive and the Agriculture Ministry also remains lethargic. Meloxicam, which is harmless, is two-and-a-half times more expensive. The board is meeting at the end of this month (April), where ornithologists hope that some firmness will be shown.

Chris Bowden, the Vulture Programme Director from the RSPB, who is spending a month in India and was also present at the launch of The Vanishing Vultures, said that meloxicam's price could decline if it was produced on a larger scale. Diclofenac is banned in most countries, including in Africa, the exception being South Asia. He recommended either subsidising the price of meloxicam or raising the price of diclofenac.

Bowden mentioned how the RSPB has taken the initiative in starting two vulture breeding centres – in Pinjor in Haryana and at the Buxa tiger sanctuary in West Bengal. However, Nita Shah, the BNHS Vulture Advocacy Programme Officer, observed that vultures breed so slowly – they only give birth to one chick a year, and it takes up to four years for it to mature – that "we cannot hope for the population to be restored to its original size, at least within our lifetime." The RSPB has raised £150,000 (Rs.1.2 crore) for each of these two aviaries, which is why only two have been established when twice are many are required in India and another six in South Asia.

The BNHS and British ornithologists' organisations are mounting a massive campaign to save the vulture, of which Pandey's film, which is the first of a 26-episode series on Doordarshan called Earth Matters, is part. Pandey asserts that the decline in vultures in South Asia may become the fastest extinction known in the biological world – faster than the dodo. And Shah adds: "It is necessary to pass the message to other South Asian countries, which are looking to India to take the lead in saving this bird. We hope that this film will hit your hearts as much as it did mine."

At the Vatavaran South Asian film festival in New Delhi last November, organised by the Centre for Media Studies and the Ministry of Environment and Forests, there were two full length documentaries on this little-known problem, both of which introduced the theme by depicting the last rites of Parsis in Mumbai. One of the films, The Last Flight, by Nutan Manmohan, won the best wildlife documentary award.