Poison death lures India's vultures to extinction

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Three species of vulture which are dying out faster than any other bird species could be extinct within five years because of the widespread use of a painkiller to treat cattle in India and Pakistan.

British conservationists have urged the Indian government to fulfil its promise of saving the vultures by banning the drug and substituting it for one that is proven to be safe. The drug, diclofenac, is widely used by cattle owners on the Indian subcontinent, and although it is harmless to many animals is it highly toxic to vultures when they feed on contaminated carcasses.

The three species ­ the oriental white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed vultures of south Asia ­ were once a common sight in India and Pakistan but since the Eighties their numbers have declined by more than 97 per cent. Scientists discovered in 2004 that diclofenac was responsible for the decline. Since its introduction 20 years ago, vultures have been placed on the list of critically endangered species.

A study published today in the online journal Public Library of Science, has shown that a painkiller called meloxicam is safe to vultures in the concentrations to which they are likely to be exposed in the wild.

The scientists, led by Gerry Swan of the University of Pretoria in South Africa, said they tested meloxicam on more than 700 birds from 30 species without any apparent adverse effects.

Conservationists have urged the Indian government to adopt the new drug and keep the promise it made last year to phase out diclofenac within six months. Rhys Green, the principal research biologist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said it was encouraging to have found a practical alternative so soon, but he warned: "Vulture populations are declining so fast that it could still be too late to save them unless action is taken immediate."

Mark Avery, the director of conservation at the RSPB, said the vultures were declining at a faster rate than had been the case for any birds, including the dodo and the passenger pigeon. "For the first time we have evidence for a safe alternative to diclofenac. Time is running out for the three species of vulture which could be extinct within five years if nothing is done," Dr Avery said.

The three species of vulture play an important role in the disposal of animal carcasses, which are often left to rot, and are important for reducing the risk of human disease, scientists said.

Ministers in India have convened a two-day meeting which starts today in Delhi to discuss ways of helping the birds recover.Asad Rahmani, director of the Bombay Natural History Society, said: "It is essential that the government acts quickly."