India’s vultures on verge of extinction thanks to cattle medication

India’s once-abundant vulture population has plummeted an astonishing 97 percent in the past decade, and conservationists worldwide charge the Indian government with not acting quickly enough to save them. The culprit is diclofenac, a cheap painkiller used to treat sick cattle in South Asia; it poisons vultures when they scavenge meat off dead cows. In March 2005, the Indian government promised to ban the drug within six months, but it’s remained freely available even as three vulture species hurtle toward extinction. India’s powerful Agriculture Ministry opposes the ban. Bird advocates say prices for a bird-safe but more expensive substitute would likely drop if the ban were enforced. Vultures play a vital role in the ecosystem by cleaning meat off the carcasses of dead animals; without them, populations of rats and feral dogs — rabies carriers — have exploded.