The study was led by Vibhu Prakash from the Bombay Natural History Society, with colleagues from the Zoological Society of London. According to a report in The Times, at risk is the long-billed and slender-billed vulture, whose numbers have fallen by almost 97 per cent. Scientists attribute this rapid decline in the species to an anti-inflammatory drug given to livestock, which is poisoning vultures that feed on the carcasses of treated animals. The drug, diclofenac, causes kidney failure in the birds. Conservationists have vehemently said that banning the sale of diclofenac and constructing more captive breeding centres is the only way to save the birds. Diclofenac is used as a painkiller for human beings. Although the manufacture of a veterinary form of the drug was banned in India in 2006, it remains available. It is claimed that the human version of the drug is also being used to treat livestock. "Efforts must be redoubled to remove diclofenac from the vultures' food supply and to protect and breed a viable population in captivity," said Prakash. During the study, scientists counted vultures in northern and central India. They surveyed the birds from vehicles along almost 19,000km of road. In particular, they took into account one species, the oriental white-backed vulture, which has lost 99.9 per cent of its population in India since 1992.
"The oriental white-backed vulture is now in dire straits, with only one thousandth of the 1992 population remaining," according to the researchers.
"Imminent extinction looms for at least three species of vulture in India. Captive breeding is their last hope," said Andrew Cunningham from the Zoological Society of London, principal investigator and co-author of the report.
"All three species could be down to a few hundred birds or less across the whole country and thus functionally extinct in less than a decade," said the researchers.
According to Richard Cuthbert from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who took part in the study, "Time has almost run out to prevent the extinction of vultures in the wild in India. The ban on diclofenac manufacture was a good start but a ban on selling it and other drugs known to cause kidney failure in vultures is vital."