Unexpected consequences of an unprecedented environmental crisis

Unexpected consequences of an unprecedented environmental crisis
Unexpected consequences of an unprecedented environmental crisis
The catastrophic decline in the vulture population in the Indian subcontinent, caused by the veterinary use of diclofenac, had serious environmental consequences.

Mauricio Saldivar 07/07/2024 07:30 8 min

He Diclofenac is an anti-inflammatory drug which is taken or applied to reduce inflammation and also as a pain reliever. It was first synthesized in 1973 and introduced as Voltaren by Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis).

Twenty years later, In 1993, the patent for that medicine expired and generic versions began to be manufactured that were much cheaper than those from the original laboratory. Its price dropped so much that in India it began to be used for veterinary purposes, to treat diseases in livestock and domestic animals.

Two years later, A catastrophic decline in the vulture population in the Indian subcontinent began, region that had millions of specimens, leading them to near extinction and impacting human health, other species and the ancient culture of the region.

Almost extinct

Between 1990 and 2000, there was a surprising decline in vulture populations in the Indian subcontinent, particularly in the countries of India and Pakistan, which gave rise to an unexpected chain reaction with worrying consequences.

Populations of the three dominant vulture species in the region (Gyps bengalensis, Gyps indicus and Gyps tenuirostris) fell sharply to near extinction, with less than 5% of specimens surviving. Some species, such as the white-backed vulture, numbered nearly 80 million in the early 1990s, and by 2000 there were fewer than 4 million vultures left.

Schematic relationship of ecosystem interactions, environmental quality and public health of the role of vultures as “environmental disinfectants”

The virtual extinction of these three species of vultures in less than a decade motivated a series of scientific investigations that attempted to find the cause of this sudden population decline. In 2004, research funded by The Peregrine Fund, a non-profit organization founded in 1970 dedicated to the conservation of threatened and endangered birds of prey worldwide, found that diclofenac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) widely used in domestic animals and livestock in Asia, was the cause. This drug caused kidney failure in vultures that ingested the carcasses treated with this medication a few hours after being administered. The vultures were dying of kidney failure.

To prevent the extinction of vultures, The Indian government decided in May 2006, ban the manufacture and sale of diclofenac for veterinary usea decision that was welcomed with great satisfaction by the international scientific community.

The relationship between vultures and religious rituals

In India, vultures play a social role. For followers of the Zoroastrian faith (mainly in Mumbai), it is a mandatory funeral rite not to bury their dead, as Christians or Muslims do, or to cremate them, as Hindus do. For Zoroastrianism, the human corpse is an impure element, and must not contaminate the sacred elements of earth, water and fire..

For this reason the bodies are taken to the ‘dakhmas’ or Towers of Silence, a circular and elevated building where they decompose naturally and the vultures are responsible for eating the meat until the bones are clean.s. Once the bones have turned white due to the sun and wind, after a year, they are thrown into the ossuary located in the central part of the dhakma where, with the help of lime, they gradually disintegrate. The remaining material, after passing through various charcoal and sand filters, is carried to the sea by water channels.

It is for this reason that Parsis need vultures to live…simply so they could die according to their rites.

One of the most famous Zoroastrians was Freddy Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara on the island of Zanzibar, to a Parsi family with roots in the Indian subcontinent. His funeral followed Zoroastrian rituals, but he was cremated.

The problem of vultures in India has led Parsi communities to seriously consider the possibility of carrying out conservation plans. assisted reproduction of these animals in order to be able to continue with their funeral rites. Others are thinking of modifying the traditional funeral rite by incorporating solar concentrators to speed up the process of decomposition of the bodies, but this solution is not accepted by the majority.

An expensive health problem

The disappearance of vultures not only caused ancient religious rites to change. With far fewer vultures, the carrion of cattle or domestic animal carcasses not consumed by vultures, allowed the number of wild dogs to increase which, as a consequence of the lack of veterinary controls and vaccination campaigns, became a serious threat to the rabies transmission, for his attacks on people.

Vultures on the walls of one of the “Towers of Silence” in Mumbai, where the bodies of dead Parsis were left out in the open

A study that focused on the social costs generated by the decline of the vulture population found that, on average, Human deaths from all causes increased by more than 4% in districts of India where vultures liveafter these birds were on the verge of extinction. The economic damage from the disappearance of vultures is, in all respects, 69.4 billion dollars per year.

News references

Oaks, J., Gilbert, M., Virani, M. et al. Diclofenac residues as the cause of vulture population decline in Pakistan. Nature 427, 630–633 (2004).
Frank, Eyal and Sudarshan, Anant, The Social Costs of Keystone Species Collapse: Evidence from the Decline of Vultures in India (January 5, 2023). University of Chicago, Becker Friedman Institute for Economics Working Paper No. 2022-165.

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