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An open letter to Veerappa Moily

The extinction of vultures will have deep ramifications on the country’s ecosystem and public health.

ht view Updated: Jan 30, 2014 22:51 IST
Bahar Dutt
Bahar Dutt
Hindustan Times

Dear Mr Moily, You have been praised for your expeditious clearing of files since you took over the ministry of environment and forests. So we hope you will apply the same level of urgency to this issue as well.

The king of birds — the vulture — needs you. We understand that elections are round the corner and it’s your top priority, but the ministry needs to step in, as it has in the past to help the vultures.

Some years ago, three species — the Oriental White-backed Vulture, Long-billed Vulture and Slender-billed Vulture — had suffered a huge crash in their populations due to the presence of Diclofenac in the animal carcasses on which vultures feed. Diclofenac is a cheap anti-inflammatory drug used to treat livestock diseases by thousands of cattle-herders across the country.

Your ministry along with the National Board of Wildlife, recognising that India had lost almost 95% of its vulture population to this drug, had issued an order asking for a ban on its sale in 2005. Since then a massive conservation campaign across South Asia has made much progress.

The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) that has been leading the campaign in India has estimated that there has been a steady decline in the rate of extinction thanks to a ban on the drug.

Scientists from around the country and in Nepal and Pakistan too have been working round-the-clock to breed vultures in captivity and today more than 250 birds are ready to take their flight to freedom. (In fact, by 2016, this number would increase to over 1,000 birds). But they cannot be released in the wild. Diclofenac is still not gone from the system.

Three important steps are still needed to ensure that vultures will be safe once released. Diclofenac vials used on humans are being administered illegally to cattle.

If your ministry can work in coordination with the ministry of health and family welfare, as it did in the past to reduce the vial size of 30 ml Diclofenac bottles to 2-3 ml ampules (this is the amount required by humans), it will help control the illegal sale of this drug. Through a massive public outreach campaign, the alternative drug, the use of meloxicam (that is safe for vultures) needs to be promoted on a large scale.

A good example is the forest departments in some states that sell the safe drug on a subsidy to encourage its use. States like Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Bihar and West Bengal who are already partners in the ‘save our vultures’ initiative , need to follow this approach more seriously, so that ‘vulture safe zones’ can be declared and the birds can be released here. There are new variants of Diclofenac — such as Ketoprofen and Nimesulide.

These too need to be phased out, before the captive vultures are released in the wild. We realise that a lot of these initiatives are complex and require working in tandem with other ministries. But we do believe this is imperative as the extinction of vultures from our ecosystem would be more than just a conservation problem.

The drastic drop in their numbers has ramifications for public health across South Asia, where animal carcasses that would have been picked clean by the vultures have in recent times been left rotting out in the open. We also understand that the trend now is that green issues hinder development and so are no longer the order of the day.

But we hope everyone will agree, that saving the king of the birds with some cooperation from the pharmaceutical industry will not be seen as ‘anti-business’.

Perhaps, even the ‘development-wallahs’ will agree that our world would not be the same without the presence of these grand birds in our skies.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist currently working on a book entitled India’s Green Wars

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jan 30, 2014 22:46 IST