Vultures, Diclofenac, Rabies, and Ecological unravelling

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A friend of mine just mailed me and asked me to blog about the latest research regarding the disappearance of India’s vultures. As it’s something I get particularly excised about I’m happy to do so. We’ve actually posted a number of times about the catastrophic decline in the population of India’s vultures - according to BirdLife’s figures the numbers of vultures have dropped by an almost inconceivable 97% - but it seems that the disaster just keeps getting worse. If ever anyone wanted an example of ‘ecological consequences’ or ‘environmental impact’ or doubted that the incalculably stupid way we humans stride about the planet slicing apart the very webs that support us isn’t going to impact on us all, they really should take a good look at the tale of India’s vultures…

When I first went to India back in the mid-1980s I saw one of the most amazing birding sights I’ve ever witnessed: huge flocks of vultures drifting through the skies over Delhi. As the sun warmed up the air literally thousands of White-rumped, Indian, and Slender-billed Vultures would rise up from their roosts and glide in long lines over the city and the adjoining countryside looking for carrion (especially dead cattle). I’d never seen anything like it before - and it’s likely I never will again. The last few times I’ve been to India I’ve not seen one, not a single, solitary vulture. They’re virtually all dead and the cause is Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug given to cattle in vast amounts to soothe the pain they live in because of the way they’re ‘looked after’ by an industry that saw them as no more than bundles of meat and leather or by farmers intent on working them until they literally dropped dead and didn’t want a little thing like acute joint pain to mean the removal of the yoke.

Dosed-up the cattle continued to be worked or lived for an extra couple of months and were then slaughtered or died, but Diclofenac has a tragic knock-on effect: ingested by vultures (who were only tidying up the mess the livestock industry left behind) it causes visceral gout, a condition caused by renal failure where the internal organs become coated in uric acid crystals and the bird starves to death very quickly. Already known to be toxic to mammals in very high doses it turns out that Diclofenac was fatal to vultures at just 10 percent of the recommended mammal dose. Stuffed to the max with pain-killers so that they could keep on working, India’s cattle were turned into the equivalent of a walking death-sentence for vultures…

This isn’t an “anti-Indian” rant - cattle are mistreated all over the world - but the fact is that South Asia’s vultures suffered one of the most rapid and widespread population declines of any bird species ever recorded, declining by more than 97 per cent over the last 10-15 years. Some people didn’t seem too bothered though, and I’ve actually personally heard commentators in India saying that getting rid of the vultures has improved the country’s image by taking away a visible symbol of poverty and inefficient waste-management. But of course the waste hasn’t gone away - and now there has been an explosion in the numbers of stray dogs roaming India’s streets feeding on the waste the vultures would normally have eaten. That is something that India is now coming to regret, because one of the most horrible of viral diseases, rabies, is common and widespread amongst the country’s millions of feral dogs….

A research programme led by Anil Markandya of the University of Bath, UK, has calculated that the decline of vultures made way for at least 5.5 million extra feral dogs in India between 1992 and 2006. During this period, these extra dogs would have been responsible for at least 38.5 million bites. National surveys show that in India 123 people die of rabies per 100,000 dog bites, suggesting that a minimum of 47,300 people may have died as a result of the vulture die-off (Ecological Economics, DOI:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2008.04.020). Taking account of the cost of treating bite victims and dealing with the extra deaths, the researchers calculate that the use of Diclofenac has indirectly cost India an unforeseen 34 BILLION US Dollars in extra health costs.

An explosion in feral dogs, huge increases in rabies, massive rises in health costs, the deaths of millions of birds - just so that cattle can be made to work harder and an industry that didn’t give a shit could carry on with ‘business as usual’. And the best excuse that anyone can give: ‘we didn’t know this was going to happen, how could we?’

Oh well, that’s okay then: we didn’t know…

There are unfortunately a lot of things we don’t know or understand properly, yet we carry on regardless. What’s going to come next in, say, the light of global warming and high fuel costs? Well, we’re already seeing a huge rise in the use of drought-resistant genetically-modified crops (and no-one really knows how they’ll impact on the environment long-term despite short-term trials). We’re seeing the cutting down of the most prolific carbon sinks on the planet (the rainforests) to grow bio-diesels in their place. We’re arguing endlessly about the quality of human life mainly in the context of how much a gallon of gas costs at the pumps, without really considering what’s going to happen to us all when the populations of entire countries begin to migrate away from rising tides and head towards higher ground…

How about the ridiculous way we feed ourselves? What we’re not cutting down to create fuel, we’re cutting down to plant soya to feed chickens so that we can pop down to the take-away for a cheap drumstick (and where is the reservoir of ‘bird flu’ being maintained right now? In the chicken industry). We’ve emptied the oceans of 90% of ‘fish-stocks’ and refuse to accept that quotas will be needed to save what’s left (and because we’ve taken out so many ocean predators the world’s beaches are becoming plagued by swarms of jellyfish which are ruining tourism, which seems to be the main cause of concern for some people).

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