Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
In 1985, the Indian white-backed vulture was described as one of "the most abundant large bird of prey in the world." Since then, things have changed dramatically.
Since the 1990s, the population has dropped by more than 97 percent and conservationists believe that the species is reaching the point of unavoidable extinction. The culprit: Diclofenac, a bovine painkiller that poisons the birds. In spite of bans, use of the drug is still common in South Asia—a practice that has been perpetuated by its effectiveness.The painkiller—which is safe for use in humans but has been banned for veterinary use in North America, Europe, and parts of South Asia—produces astonishing results in cattle. Often, cows crippled with pain are able to stand and walk minutes after a single injection. This, of course, makes the veterinarian look good and makes it a popular panacea.
However, within days of eating Diclofenac-laced flesh, a vulture's organs are coated in a thick, white paste, eventually causing organ failure.
The test, which is simple enough for non-experts to administer, could quickly identify tainted carrion, helping conservationists select food for breeding centers and wildlife officials track veterinarians practicing in opposition to the ban.
Though trials have been promising, researchers were quick to add that more work had to be done to ensure the test was completely effective. "We can't afford," said Chris Bowden, the Vulture Program Manager at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, "to get it wrong even once."