Second breeding centre for vanishing vultures
Work is beginning in West Bengal on a second captive-breeding centre for three Asian species of Gyps vulture, which have declined catastrophically in recent years. The vultures suffer kidney failure and death after feeding on carcasses of cattle treated with diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug, which in the 1990s was introduced for veterinary use across the Indian subcontinent.
Four more breeding centres centres are planned, in an attempt to create reservoirs of birds to be re-introduced once the environment is clear of diclofenac.
Meanwhile, 44 birds, equal numbers of Indian and White-rumped Vultures (Gyps indicus and G. bengalensis), have been brought together at the first captive breeding centre at Haryana, India. Two additional colony aviaries, with trees and artificial ledges for nesting, have been built at Haryana, providing facilities for a further 40 pairs.
However, no Slender-billed vultures G. tenuirostris, the most severely threatened of the three, are yet in captivity. The recovery programme partners are gravely concerned that time is running out, especially for this species.
"It is already becoming difficult to find enough birds to establish stocks for captive breeding." —Dr Vibhu Prakash, BNHS
By 2004, numbers of all three species were down to between one and three percent of levels in the early 1990s, and are continuing to decline by as much as 50 per cent per year.
The recovery programme in India is a joint project involving the RSPB, the Zoological Society of London, and the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS, BirdLife in India), supported by Indian state and central governments. Also participating are Bird Conservation Nepal (BirdLife in Nepal), The Peregrine Fund, National Birds Of Prey Trust and the Ornithological Society of Pakistan (BirdLife in Pakistan).
The partners hope to capture birds from a number of states, to reflect the genetic diversity of the three species across their ranges.
The West Bengal Centre is being built on land provided by the West Bengal government on the edge of the Buxa Tiger Reserve. The West Bengal government is actively supporting the project. Of the four centres still to be built, two more are planned for India, and one each in Nepal and Pakistan. A fundraising campaign to meet the high costs of building and managing the centres has been launched, and the project partners are negotiating with other international and national conservation NGOs to share the burden of funding and resources.
"We’ve had two birds pair up in the Haryana centre and begin copulating. That’s more than we could have expected at this early stage, and an encouraging sign." —Chris Bowden, RSPB
Chris Bowden, the RSPB’s Vulture Programme Manager, believes that viable breeding populations of White-rumped and Indian vultures could be established within 18 months if resources and efforts are fully coordinated. Vultures reach sexual maturity after four to five years, and raise at best one young per year, so the recovery programme is a long-term undertaking.
Assuming diclofenac and other anti-inflammatories which could pose a similar threat are eliminated from the environment, re-introductions could begin in ten years, although Bowden stresses that the programme is a 15 year minimum undertaking.