Saving Vultures From Extinction
Krishna Prasad Bhusal
The first Saturday in September each year is International Vulture Awareness Day. The tenth International Vulture Awareness Day is celebrating on 1 September 2018 carry out the different activities that highlight vulture conservation and awareness.
Vultures are an ecologically vital group of birds that face a range of threats in many areas that they occur. Populations of many species are under pressure and some species are facing extinction. Study in India indicates that White-rumped Vultures declined by 99.9 per cent over the period 1992 to 2007, and Long-billed and Slender-billed Vultures decreased by 96.8 cent over the same period and Red-headed Vulture declined by 91 per cent from 1990s to 2003.
Within Nepal, research and monitoring of vulture species has been undertaken in lowland areas and has revealed similar declines of 91 per cent for White-rumped Vulture and 96 per cent for Slender-billed Vulture between 1995 and 2011. Due to similar declines elsewhere in South Asia in 1990s, four species out of nine species of vultures in Nepal, White-rumped Vulture, Long-billed Vultur, Slender-billed Vulture and Red-headed Vulture were up listed by IUCN as “Critically Endangered” which is highest category of endangerment.
Vultures are large sized scavenging birds of group raptors, feeding mostly on the carcasses of dead animals and are found on every continent except Antarctica and Oceania. Vultures play a highly important ecological role through the rapid consumption of animal carcasses. They do safely disposing off dead animals and help in preventing the spread of zoonotic diseases.
The loss of a major scavenger from the ecosystem have associated disease risks for wildlife, livestock and humans including the spread of rabies and livestock borne diseases like anthrax, tuberculosis and brucellosis. They also have an important cultural role in the consumption of human dead bodies in sky burials within Nepal and Tibet. Among Lama People in Trans Himalayan range and in other cultures including the Sherpa, based on priest advice the dead body to cut into pieces and offer to vulture. In this dry environment where burial and incineration are impossible, vultures are the cleaner of the environment. In the Hindu mythology, a vulture is said to be the carrier of God Shani (Saturn); and a vulture struggled with Ravana to stop kidnap of Sita in the Ramayan.
The cause of vulture population declines has been shown to be the veterinary drug Diclofenac which is widely used to treat livestock in Asia. Vultures are highly susceptible to Diclofenac, they are exposed to the drug through the carcasses of treated livestock. Vultures that consume sufficient tissue from Diclofenac treated animal carcasses induced kidney failure with clinical signs of visceral gout.
In order to halt the decline of the critically endangered vultures in Nepal, both ex-situ and in-situ conservation has been practiced. The Government of Nepal banned production and veterinary use of Diclofenac in 2006; prepared and implemented the first Vulture Conservation Action Plan for Nepal (2009-13) and revised to Vulture Conservation Action Plan for Nepal (2015-19) which is being implemented now.
The main objective of Vulture Conservation Action Plan was to prevent the extinction of vulture species by ensuring re-introduction, safe food supply, maintenance of suitable habitat and better understanding of the ecological importance of these birds in Nepal with a goal to revive viable population of vultures in the wild. Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre was established in Chitwan National Park of Nepal in 2008 as an ex-situ conservation practice. The main aim of this centre is to release captive bred birds which are anticipated to lead the restoration of a wild population in a Diclofenac-free environment.
Seven vulture safe feeding sites, popularly called Jatayu Restaurant are in operation in Nepal where safe food is provided to the large fliers. These Vulture (Jatayu) Restaurants collect old and unproductive cows from the nearby villages and keep them at least for seven days to ensure Diclofenac-free and fed to vultures after their natural death. This conservation effort is not only linked with biodiversity conservation, livelihoods are sustained through this as well.
Vulture Restaurants located in Kawasoti, Nawalparasi, Gaidatal, Rupandehi, Ghachowk, Kaski, Lalmatiya and Bijauri Dang, Khutiya, Kailali and Ramdhuni, Sunsari have been an attraction to local and international tourism and have linked to promote ecotourism. These sites are important for Globally Threatened vultures as well as culture of local indigenous people.
Nepal initiated a pioneer idea in the world of working with local communities to establish a Vulture Safe Zone (VSZ) since 2009. A VSZ is an area surrounding one or more wild vulture nesting colonies, large enough to encompass the mean foraging range and completely free from Diclofenac. Till now, 63 districts out of 77 have been declared as free from veterinary Diclofenac. Conservationists are making great progress in removing vulture-killing drug Diclofenac from Nepal, with vulture populations stabilising as a result. Keeping in account of these progresses on conservation of vultures, the Government of Nepal has begun the release of captive vultures from Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre into the wild.
Although veterinary use of Diclofenac was banned in Nepal in 2006, human-intended Diclofenac continues to be used for veterinary purposes. Human Diclofenac of multi dose vials are easily available in Indian markets nearby the boarder areas with Nepal and are being imported for veterinary use which is a big challenge. Whilst there is already strong suggestive evidence that other painkiller livestock drugs Nimesulide, Aceclofenac and Ketoprofen are already known to be toxic to vultures. However, only veterinary Diclofenac is banned in Nepal. To ensure the recovery of critically endangered vultures in Nepal, all vulture-toxic drugs available for veterinary use need to be banned or removed from the environment.
Now vulture populations remain very small and therefore, vulnerable with little threats. Besides Diclofenac there might be other undergoing threats causing problem to small populations of vultures in Nepal such as accidental poisoning, human disturbance, electrocution, localised shortage of food due to alternative disposal mechanisms of carcasses etc. which may prevent vulture populations from returning to pre-decline numbers.
In order to prevent a manmade near-extinction continuous conservation efforts need to be taken. To complete ban on use of Diclofenac and other harmful drugs need on pan-regional collaboration since animals and birds do not recognise borders.
(Bhusal is Vulture Conservation Program Officer at Bird Conservation Nepal)