Only a decade ago, millions of Asian vultures lived in Pakistan, India, and Nepal. These enormous raptors provided an effective method of removing dead livestock, preventing the spread of diseases. They played a similar role with human corpses, ritualized in the "sky burials" of the Parsi religion.
Then huge numbers of these birds began dying mysteriously starting about a decade ago. They're now teetering on the edge of extinction. No one knew why until last May, when a veterinarian with the Peregrine Fund discovered the culprit: a pain-relief medication routinely administered to cattle. Birds that ate dead cattle treated with the drug were dying in massive numbers. The veterinarian, Lindsay Oaks, has warned that if nothing is done, these species could be extinct in months.
The news has caught the attention of the international community and calls out for a regional solution, since the birds swoop back and forth over national borders. But there's a hitch: two of the countries involved - India and Pakistan - have a history of conflict. And there's little evidence so far they're willing to work together.
"Although extinction in the wild might happen, it is possible to save the three species and get them back into the wild as self-sustaining populations by 2030," says Jemima Parry-Jones, director of the National Birds of Prey Centre in Newant, England. She adds that this will take a "huge amount of work and commitment" from all countries concerned.
The toll on the vultures has been enormous. Three species - the oriental white-backed vulture, long-billed vulture, and slender-billed vulture - have declined by 92 to 99 percent over the past decade, researchers say. And the slender-billed vulture may actually already be extinct.
The annual mortality rate of these species is now a staggering 30 to 60 percent, says Bill Burnham, president of the Peregrine Fund, in Idaho. "Based on this rate of decline, this breeding season could be our last," he says.
The Peregrine Fund, which works to conserve birds of prey, organized a summit on the Asian vulture crisis last month in Kathmandu, Nepal. Officials from India, Nepal, Pakistan, and nongovernmental environmental organizations met and emerged with a resolution calling for two things: the control of the drug, diclofenac, in South Asia and a captive-breeding program for the endangered species.
Delegates from Pakistan and Nepal agreed to initiate the process of controlling diclofenac, and the Indian government offered to educate groups about the environmental consequences of the drug. Diclofenac is manufactured in Pakistan and India and, at less than 50 cents a dose, it's currently an inexpensive way for farmers to treat inflammation in their cattle. The farmers are loath to give it up.
"An Indian official told me that it would be easier for India to ban diclofenac if Pakistan or Nepal banned the drug first," says Rick Watson, director of international programs for the Peregrine Fund. That's because the Indians are not yet entirely convinced that diclofenac is the culprit in their country, he adds.
A move by other countries would give politicians something to point to. "The Indians are invested heavily in the idea that the vulture demise was caused by an infectious disease and although they believe our findings, it will take a while for them to get over their theory," Mr. Watson says.
Currently both India and Pakistan want to save the Asian vultures, but so far there are no signs they intend to work cooperatively, as each country moves forward with different approaches. "But I did not get the sense that if the occasion arose there would be any reservations by the conservationists to work together," says Dr. Oaks of the Peregrine Fund.
Both India and Pakistan proposed establishing captive-breeding programs. One facility is already in place in India and another two are planned. As a result of the Kathmandu summit, an environmental and wildlife agency in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, has offered to breed Asian vultures in captivity. Pakistan and Nepal will ship vultures to Abu Dhabi, but the birds and their offspring will be returned once the situation is stable.
"Our minimum goal is to establish 25 pairs of all three species, but that might not be possible," says Mr. Burnham.
The Peregrine Fund is particularly concerned about the slender-billed vulture, which some think may already be extinct. This species previously ranged along the Ganges in northern India and southern Nepal, but in a recent survey, researchers only found seven of these birds and did not locate any nests.
They plan to have the birds ready to transport to the United Arab Emirates by the end of April.
"We have done as much as we possibly can," Watson says. "We found the problem, identified it, and talked to governments. Now we're going to put some of these birds in a captive-breeding program."