Species extinction in India If the vultures don’t get it

Vulture
Vulture | © colourbox.com (Detail)

Each Indian vulture that eats the carcasses of India’s holy cows generates about 9,200 euros per year for its services. Animal rights activists have calculated it. But now the birds are threatened with extinction and the cows who have perished have to be burned, which is costly. Wouldn’t protection of the species be cheaper?

Gyps Bengalensis is posted on the cage in which a pair of vultures perch in the New Delhi Zoo. Both birds look a bit ruffled, almost sad. Do they have any idea that they’re among the last remaining members of their species? Thirty years ago, the sky over India was populated with up to 80 million vultures. Spotting the scavengers was part of everyday life here. The vultures were loved: People in the cities and on the countryside cherished the work of scavenging that the birds took care of. About 500 million cows are kept in India. However, the consumption of beef is a religious taboo. For thousands of years, the vultures disposed of the dead animals.

But then in the 90s, the pain killer, Diclofenac, became popular in veterinary medicine. It found a ready market with India’s dairy farmers, since it’s extremely cost-effective. What nobody expected: Diclofenac is deadly for vultures, it causes their nervous system to fail.  

Dramatic decrease of the species

Widespread death, as never before seen by scientists, ensued, says Narayanan Ishwar, from the Indian branch of IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “It was and is dramatic.” After three decades of Diclofenac, India is almost vulture free. The population of vultures has decreased by an astonishing 99%. The bird – which became essential of the romantic image of India after Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, in which a group of vultures took little Mogli under their wings – is severely threatened with extinction today.  

In order to prevent India’s vultures from being history, the IUCN (with money and support from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für International Zusammenarbeit - GIZ) has now calculated the value of the “work” done by India’s vultures.

The value of nature

The background is a new approach taken in science and conservation, in which the so-called ecosystem service takes center stage. “Nature has value, which can and must be recognized and labeled,” says Edgar Endrukatis of GIZ’s German-Indian biodiversity program in New Delhi. It’s especially helpful in the face of politics and policy to articulate the utility of conservation in euros and cents. “Then they’re strong arguments.”

The experts at the nature institute set up 15 case studies across all of India to calculate the value of wetlands and forests, as well as mussels fish and, of course, vultures. In the case of vultures, the results of the number crunching is actually impressive: A single bird generates about 9,200 euros in services – each year! The sum was calculated by looking at how much the Indian government would have to spend in the coming years – as it has already been doing in recent years – to dispose of the dairy cow’s carcasses in crematoriums they would have to build. The cost is equal to the amount it would take to breed and reintroduce young vultures.

Cow crematorium or 300 vulture couples

The results: In order to dispose of 60 dead cows a week, an administrative district would need a medium-sized cow crematorium or a vulture population of 300 couples. But breeding and protecting the birds is much cheaper than building and running the facilities.

“It makes more sense economically to invest in breeding and reintroducing vultures and to set up vulture protection zones then to put money towards facilities to dispose of cow carcasses,” is the judgement made by the case study. It would also make sense to subsidize a more expensive painkiller to push Diclofenac, which is extremely cheap, off the market. “Admittedly, the medicine is no longer prescribed by veterinarians, but you can still buy it over the counter in any pharmacy. So farmers just medicate their animals themselves. Diclofenac will only stop killing vultures, once there is another medicine that’s cheaper,” says Ishwar.

Highest rabies death rate

India’s vulture crisis is also costing the government money elsewhere: Since the birds have been disappearing, rats and stray dogs have been feasting on the cow carcasses, which means they’ve been multiplying rapidly. This increases disease and also dog bites. “With 20,000 deaths from rabies annually, India is the country with the highest rabies death rate worldwide – and it’s because of the vulture going extinct,” says Ishwar, who is a biologist.

And then there are still the Parsi, a religious minority. The Zoroastrian fire worshipers traditionally lay their dead on a so-called “Tower of Silence,” to let them be eaten by vultures. Cremation and burial are forbidden. Since the scavengers have become rarer, the dead bodies are left to rot, which causes problems, especially in the Parsi stronghold of Mumbai. Some congregations have built up solar facilities, which are supposed to dry out the dead bodies – but pious Parsi aren’t satisfied with this, which has surprisingly made Parsi priests in recent years into spokespersons for the vulture conservation movement. The IUCN’s study has now given them new ammunition in their struggle to protect the species.