Hyderabad: No vultures will be left in India and the rest of South Asia if no immediate steps are taken for their conservation, non-governmental organisations have warned.
South Asia once had millions of vultures but over the last one decade, 99 percent of them have disappeared.
"This is the fastest decline of any bird species ever reported anywhere in the world," Asad R. Rahmani, director, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), told IANS.
Rahmani, a scientist with over three decades of experience, said unlike some other bird species which face extinction because of poaching and habitat destruction, vultures were disappearing only because of a drug called diclofenac.
He pointed out that though the Indian government banned the drug for veterinary use in 2006 to save vultures, it was still being used. The pain killer for humans is being diverted for veterinary use.
Demanding that the government make it a prescriptive drug, Rahmani said vultures feeding on carcasses of cattle given diclofenac die in three to 10 days. "The study by Indian Veterinary Research Institute has shown that kidney failure occurs in such vultures and they don't recover," he said.
"For vultures, this drug is as lethal as cyanide," he stressed.
India had once had four to five million vultures but only a few thousand of them are left now. South Asia's all three Gyps species of vulture are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
The BNHS, a 128-year-old NGO engaged in conservation of biological diversity, is also involved in captive conservation and breeding of vultures. "We will release these birds once diclofenac is completely phased out," said Rahmani, one of the first to raise the issue in India.
Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), a consortium of 10 national and international NGOs headed by the BNHS, is highlighting the problem during the ongoing United Nations Conference on Biodiversity here.
SAVE is spearheading efforts to phase out diclofenac, launch conservation breeding programmes and create "vulture safe zones" - 100 km radius areas in which intensive efforts are made to remove diclofenac, in preparation for future vulture releases.
The IUCN has also taken an initiative to develop a South Asia Regional Vulture Recovery Project for submission to Global Environment Facility (GEF).
The governments of India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan adopted a regional declaration in May this year for co-ordination and collaboration in vulture conservation.
The NGOs described the loss of the vultures as the loss of a critically important ecosystem service. Animal carcasses are now being left to rot, leading to an enormous waste disposal problem and to a number of health concerns. Feral dogs, dog attacks and the risk of rabies have all increased, they said.
The loss of vultures has also had social impacts on some communities, such as the Parsis, who traditionally offered their dead to the vultures in "Towers of Silence", and the Jains, whose "Panjrapores" (animal shelters) also relied on vultures.