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Long-billed vultures, an endangered species, successfully bred in captivity for the first time in India

June 29, 2010 |  1:32 pm

Long-billed vulture chicks

MUMBAI, India — The long-billed vulture, one of the world's most endangered birds, has been bred in captivity for the first time in India, scientists said Tuesday.

The three chicks that hatched in February and March in a breeding center in northern India belong to one of three species of Asian vultures facing extinction. All of the baby birds had fledged -- or taken their first flight -- by Monday.

The world conservation union has listed the three Indian vulture species as critically endangered, the category applied to animals closest to extinction.

Tens of millions of vultures once played a key role in South Asia's ecosystem, disposing of carcasses and keeping down populations of stray dogs and rats that also feed on carcasses and are likely to spread diseases among humans.

But millions of long-billed, slender-billed and oriental white-backed vultures have died in South Asia over the past several years after eating cattle carcasses tainted with diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory painkiller given to sick cows.

The total number of the three species of vultures is now below 60,000, according to Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which provides funds and technical expertise to the Indian breeding program.

Over the last six years, scientists in India have managed to successfully breed the other two varieties. But this is the first successful attempt for the long-billed vulture, the society said in a statement Tuesday.

Scientists believe the three breeding centers -- the one for long-billed vultures in Pinjore in Haryana state and the others in West Bengal and Assam states -- are key for the survival of the species.

None of the birds bred in Indian captivity has been released into the wild yet, according to Grahame Madge, spokesman for the British bird society.

But the British charity along with the Bombay Natural History Society and other environmental groups are creating several safe zones in which to release the birds, Madge said.

The decline in the vulture population has impacted the funeral rites of the India's tiny Zoroastrian community. Zoroastrians, also known as Parsis, worship fire and believe that cremation is a mortal sin and that burial pollutes the earth. So they leave their dead atop the towers to be devoured by vultures, a process they believe releases the spirit of the dead.

In response to the decline, authorities in India banned diclofenac five years ago, but conservationists hope that a second animal painkiller -- ketoprofen -- will also eventually be banned and farmers will use only a drug called meloxicam, which has proven safe, according to Vibhu Prakash, a senior scientist at the Bombay Natural History Society.

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-- Associated Press

Photo: Long-billed vulture chicks huddle at a breeding center in Pinjore, India. Credit: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds / Associated Press

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