"Mysterious Plague" Spurs India Vulture Die-Off

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In areas of India where vultures remain, many still show signs of a mysterious illness that is characterized by prolonged periods of neck drooping. Adults, juveniles, and nestlings are all affected by the disease, and invariably die as a result.

Preliminary investigations have shown that the most likely cause of the decline is a yet-to-be-identified infectious disease, possibly a new virus. This is unusual, as vultures are highly efficient scavengers and are normally resistant to many diseases.

India's once highly abundant white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis) and the long billed vulture (Gyps indicus) are now listed as "critically endangered" by Bird Life International.

The Bombay Natural History Society was the first institution to sound the alarm about the vultures in India, noting a 97 percent decline in the abundance of the birds at the world famous Keoladeo National Park, Rajasthan, in 1999.

There are many other ramifications and health hazards associated with this vulture die off, said Vibhu Prakash, a principal scientist of the BNHS, who is also the lead investigator for the vulture-recovery project. "The decline of vultures has led to the sudden increase in population of stray dogs in northern India, posing a huge rabies risk for the rural population."

The "superabundance of uneaten cattle carcasses in India poses a direct health threat," agreed Andrew Cunningham, head of wildlife epidemiology at the Zoological Society of London, Institute of Zoology, UK.

In the a multi-author paper published in the latest issue of Biological Conservation Prakash said, "if the cause of declines is not identified soon and remedial action taken, then it is possible that affected species will become extinct."

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