Cost-Benefit Analysis of Vulture Decline in South Asia

Vultures provide a wide range of services to humankind, most notably disposal of carrion. These services have important implications for human well-being as uneaten carcasses pose a threat to human health by providing a breeding ground for potentially pathogenic bacteria such as anthrax. The services are also important from the perspective of livelihoods as many people across South Asia collect cattle bones for fertilizer industry or cattle skin for tanning industry. Apart from these, vultures have special religious significance for Hindus, Parsis and Buddhists.

In spite of their significant spiritual, environmental and economic benefits, the population of vultures in South Asia has been declining at an alarming rate in last couple of decades (Table 1). It is estimated that the region has lost 99 percent of its vulture population in last 20 years. The population decline has mainly been witnessed in three vulture species (Gyps bengalensis, Gyps tenuirostris, Gyps indicus); it constitutes more than 90 percent of population decline of vultures in India, Pakistan and Nepal.
Scientific investigations identified that a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) known as Diclofenac Sodium administered to domestic ailing cattle in the Indian sub-continent was the overwhelming cause of decline in vulture population in South Asia. The drug which entered vultures through dead livestock administered with Diclofenac Sodium was found to cause renal failure in vultures which has resulted in their massive population decline.

While its veterinary use has been banned in some countries such as India, it is still available for human consumption and is thus available for its use in treating ailing cattle. A major reason for drug’s widespread use in the region is its low price.
The solution is to replace Diclofenac Sodium with other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as Meloxicam which are proved to be non-detrimental to vulture population in the region. The trust performed an initial cost-benefit analysis of the trade-off between economic costs of a complete ban of Diclofenac and replacing it with Meloxicam, an alternative vulture-safe drug.

The solution is to replace Diclofenac Sodium with other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as Meloxicam which are proved to be non-detrimental to vulture population in the region. The trust performed an initial cost-benefit analysis of the trade-off between economic costs of a complete ban of Diclofenac and replacing it with Meloxicam, an alternative vulture-safe drug.
The results of the pilot study served as an indicator to consider the role of subsidies, to promote Meloxicam and discourage Diclofenac. The economic and health benefits from biodiversity and ecosystems services as a result of increases in vulture populations would exceed the cost of subsidizing Meloxicam. However there is a need to replicate this strategy at a national scale across the vulture ranging countries of the sub-continent, i.e., India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan, in order to generate any significant conservation outcomes for the species.

GIST's preliminary assessment was brought to the attention to the Ministry of Health in 2013.  Download the letter here.
Vultures species in South Asia

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