Vultures of India in danger of sudden extinction

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The Independent Online

Vultures, the very harbingers of death, are themselves dying out. Their numbers are falling catastrophically in India - until now their main stronghold - and experts fear that they face extinction.

Vultures, the very harbingers of death, are themselves dying out. Their numbers are falling catastrophically in India - until now their main stronghold - and experts fear that they face extinction.

British and Indian conservation bodies have mounted an urgent investigation to find out what is happening to the birds, fast disappearing from both nature reserves and the rubbish tips where they used to congregate in tens of thousands.

They are trying to find out what has caused the decline, which is all the more alarming for being totally unexpected. Like the London house sparrow - which has also suffered an abrupt and wholescale decline - the vultures had always been such successful and adaptable species that no one ever thought that they could be driven to the brink of extinction.

The slump was first noticed by the Bombay Natural History Society in the Keoladeo National Park at Bharatpur, south of Delhi. Surveys showed that the number of white-backed vultures - which used to be India's most common species - have plummeted by 96 per cent over the last decade and those of the long-billed vulture - the next most common - by 97 per cent.

Whereas every wild animal carcass in the park used to be mobbed by an average of 80 vultures, now nine out of every 10 of them attract no birds at all.

Reports have been coming in of similar decline all over India. Dumps of animal carcasses outside the country's towns, which used to attract up to 20,000 birds apiece, are now almost devoid of them. And there are fears that public health will be affected as the carcasses both on the dumps and scattered through the countryside are left to rot rather than being picked clean by vultures.

The cause of the decline has remained a mystery. The vultures are not running out of food, far from it, as uneaten carcasses lie about the country. And though pesticides were early suspects, the dead birds that have been examined do not have high levels of the chemicals in their bodies. They do, however, have a dislike of the wet and increased monsoon rainfall may be a factor in their decline.

The fall in numbers is threatening the vultures with rapid extinction because, although they can live for up to 30 years, they are slow to reproduce, and so cannot bounce back from disaster.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is now backing an urgent investigation throughout India. It is working with the Bombay Natural History Society to survey 30 areas across India, and has funded a veterinary pathologist from Britain's Institute of Zoology to go out to try to find out why the birds are dying.

The pathologist, Andrew Cunningham, says that his investigations, which have included post-mortems on the birds, suggest that they are dying from a virus. The birds sit on branches, with their heads hanging down, for about a month before falling off the trees and dying. In a healthy state, the birds can glide at a speed of up to 90mph and soar to great heights.

Mr Cunningham said that there is a "real potential" that the virus will spread to related species of vultures in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. There is a closely related African white-backed vulture. And Peter Wood, of the RSPB's international division adds: "There is concern that this could spread across much of the world."

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