White-rumped vulture, photo: Lip Kee Yap via flickr
Some hope for three species of endangered Indian vultures: Conservationists have successfully bred all of them in captivity for the first time. Considering that at current rates of decline--brought about in no small part because of a painkiller used in cattle (more on that below)--these vultures would be globally extinct within 10 years, the importance of this seems clear. Tens of Millions of Birds Reduced to Less Than 60,000
Birdlife International describes the scale of the problem and the current good news:
Reportedly, before their population crash, Asia's vulture population extended to tens of millions of birds, but now the combined population of all three species numbers is believed to be well below 60,000 individuals. And with the population of at least one species almost halving each year, the success of captive breeding may give some hope that these magnificent birds will be prevented from reaching oblivion.
The centre reports that 10 vulture chicks have fledged this year, with three Indian Vulture Gyps indicus chicks fledging in captivity for the first time ever. These chicks were complemented by the fledging of three Slender-billed Vultures G. tenuirostris and four White-rumped Vultures G. bengalensis.
Chris Bowden of the Royal Society for Protection of Birds notes, "Although we may never again witness the sheer abundance of vultures across southern Asia, the latest news provides hope that we may, at least, be able to prevent the total extinction of these birds."
The birds were bred in a conservation partnership consisting of Birdlife International, Bombay Natural History Society, International Centre for Birds of Prey, Royal Society for Protection of Birds, and Zoological Society of London.
Map of the vultures' distribution, prior to recent dramatic declines: Wikipedia.
Cattle Painkiller, Now Banned, Killed Vultures Too
The other story in this, the prime reason for the decline of these ecologically important birds, serves as an example of how unintended consequences of human action can create havoc.
As BBC News reports, four of the five major vulture species in India are critically endangered because of the use of the painkiller diclofenac in cattle. Long story short, when vultures eat meat from these cattle they die of acute kidney failure within a few days or lose the ability to reproduce. The use of the painkiller in India has been banned for four years now, but the effects on vulture populations remain.
More on Endangered Species:
Record Numbers of Bird Species Threatened with Extinction in IUCN Red List Update
One Third of US Birds Endangered, Threatened or In Decline
Can Audubon's "Frozen Zoo" Save Endangered Species?