A program to save South Asia’s wild vultures from extinction by breeding captive populations may be an exercise in futility, according to research released today.
Vultures once numbered tens of millions in India, Nepal, and Pakistan, where they provided valuable health services by consuming the remains of animal carcasses quickly. The birds also disposed of human remains set out for them on sacrificial “towers of silence” by adherents of the ancient Parsi religion.
When numbers of the bird crashed to a few thousand across the entire subcontinent the impact was dramatic. Rotting carcasses stunk up the countryside, incubating disease. Populations of feral dogs scavenging on the meat bonanza exploded, and the dogs also spread diseases, including rabies.
Parsis, whose religion prohibits burying or burning their dead, had to resort to technology such as solar reflectors to hasten decomposition of corpses.
The fate of South Asia’s vultures is a tragic story. When their numbers began to plummet in the mid-1990s researchers were mystified. By the time the cause was identified–widespread use of diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that had become a popular treatment for ailing livestock–several vulture species were on the brink of extirpation.
The near extinction of vultures in India has hardly been reported in the West, and yet their disappearance has had huge implications for the subcontinent, causing major social and economic impacts—and affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
The reason for this is that vultures have always performed an essential cleaning function, eating the flesh from the man dead animals that litter the countryside. A hungry flock was once able to remove the carcass of a dead cow in a matter of minutes. But now they are gone, and the fly-ridden corpses rot in the hot sun.
The vultures were accidentally killed off because anti-inflammatory drugs given to cattle proved lethal to the birds that ate the dead animals. And with no vultures to clean up, the surplus carcasses facilitated an explosion in the population of wild dogs. These dogs spread rabies, a disease that has killed tens of thousands of people, and cost the Indian economy a figure estimated in excess of $30 billion.
This is but one of thousands of examples of natural services that are (or were) provided free by nature, but which cost massive amounts of money to compensate for when the ecology is disrupted. That cost is now the subject of a new branch of economics concerned with so-called ecosystem services.
Experts are beginning to put a price on nature—and it is huge.
For example, Hurricane Katrina cost the U.S. $81 billion and the damage still remains. New Orleans became much more vulnerable to big storms as the mangrove forests in the Mississippi River delta were stripped away to make space for shipping lanes and aquatic farms.
The economic value of some intact mangrove forests is calculated at many times more than the value derived from their clearance to make way for intensive shrimp farms. The benefits that mangroves provide in flood protection and as a nursery for oceanic fish is difficult to calculate compared to the profits of a shrimp farm, but the value is there nonetheless.
Even those living in cities far from the world of nature will be able to relate to nature supporting our civilization—from water flowing through the faucet, a bowl of fruit on the kitchen table, and the ice cream in the freezer—because author Tony Juniper reveals these nature tales with compelling relevance and immediacy.
For more information about the book, please go to Synergetic Press at www.synergeticpress.com