At a time when India and Pakistan are looking at ways to bridge their differences, a common cause to safeguard endangered vultures seems to have further promoted their efforts to achieve political bonhomie.
The two countries have decided to work jointly to revive the declining population of vultures, known for preventing contamination of soil and groundwater through the consumption of rotting carcasses, in the subcontinent.
The Indian sub-condition was home to lakhs of vultures till the 1980s, when excess usage of diclofenac – a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) – started taking its toll on them.
"Use of diclofenac (a painkiller) on one of 76 animals is enough to kill a vulture because of its toxicity. The chemical causes brain hemorrhage," said Nita Shah, an expert on vultures.
Diclofenac and other NSAIDs, such as ketoprofen and aceclofenac, have caused a decline in vulture population by over 95%.
"Just a few thousand vultures survive today, and they will also die if efforts are not made to remove NSAIDs from the vulture food chain," said Asad Rahmani, director of Bombay Natural History Society, which has mapped vulture zones in India and Pakistan.
The decline in the vulture population occurred despite India, Pakistan and Nepal banning the use of diclofenac for veterinary purposes in 2006. While conducting a survey of three Indian states, Shah found that diclofenac meant for humans was being prescribed for animals.
The ban has not been implemented effectively, says Rahmani.
Now, India and Pakistan have agreed to bring in legislations in their respective countries for halting the manufacture of multi-dose diclofenac vials.
"We will promote alternatives to diclofenac, such as meloxicam," said Jagdish Kishwan, additional director-general of forests in the environment ministry.
The declaration was signed after a two-day symposium on vultures, organised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Delhi on Friday. Bangladesh and Nepal are signatories of the declaration too.
India and Pakistan have started in-situ vulture conservation programmes by setting up breeding centres in Panchkula and Changa Manda forest near Lahore respectively. The challenge that lies ahead, however, is the re-introduction of the vultures to the wild.
"We can learn a lot from each other," said a Pakistan forest ministry official, adding that the countries are now looking at identifying "trans-boundary" vulture safe zones in the wild.
The two countries may get a helping hand from the IUCN, which plans to seek $15 million from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) for starting a five-year regional programme to save vultures.