Sun, Feb 04, 2007 - Page 5 News List

India's endangered vultures flocking in Hoshiarpur district

POPULATION INCREASE Numbers had plummeted by more than 95 percent in the past decade, leading to the banning of a drug thought to be killing them

AFP , AMRITSAR, INDIA

Hundreds of vultures are flocking in India's northern Punjab State, a wildlife official said on Friday, after fears the big scavengers were dying out in the sub-continent.

Two years ago just 40 vultures were reported alive in Punjab, said Sukhdeep Singh Bajwa, honorary wildlife warden of Hoshiarpur district.

Until two months ago the figure was still only 100 birds in the Himalayan foothills.

"If a proper census is done, the number I believe will cross 500," Bajwa said.

"I have seen three different populations in the region," he said by telephone from Hoshiarpur, 120km east of Amritsar.

Populations of three species of vulture had plummeted by more than 95 percent in the past decade, placing them on the list of critically endangered species in India.

Evidence gathered by wildlife specialists said the vultures had died of a kidney ailment known as visceral gout caused by the painkiller diclofenac.

The birds ingested the cheap drug, which is widely used by farmers and vets, when feeding on the carcasses of livestock treated with diclofenac.

Alarmed by the rapid decline in the numbers of vultures, the Indian government in August banned the use of diclofenac, an anti-steroidal drug sold over the counter.

Bajwa said the implementation of the ban on diclofenac use needed to be coupled with efforts to preserve the vultures' natural habitat.

"Only a multi-pronged approach will help preserve the species," he said.

Vibhu Prakash, principal scientist at the non-profit Bombay Natural History Society that is breeding vultures in captivity, welcomed the report of mass sightings from Hoshiarpur.

But he added that caution was required over the success of conservation efforts.

"It is too soon to say whether the ban on diclofenac is yielding results. I would say it will take years for anyone to make a proper assessment," said Prakash.

Flocks of the birds once nested in the heart of the capital New Delhi but have long since disappeared.

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