8 Nov 2017

Captive-reared Critically Endangered vultures soon to be released in Nepal

Conservationists are making great progress in removing vulture-killing drug diclofenac from Nepal, with vulture populations stabilising as a result. Now, in this safer environment, it’s almost time for six captive-reared White-rumped Vultures to venture out into the wild.

White-rumped Vultures fitted with satellite transmitters wait within the pre-release aviary © Bird Conservation Nepal
White-rumped Vultures fitted with satellite transmitters wait within the pre-release aviary © Bird Conservation Nepal
By Shaun Hurrell

South Asian vultures have famously suffered devastating population declines in recent decades. For example, 99.9% of White-rumped Vultures Gyps bengalensis were wiped out between 1992 and 2007. This was due to the use of diclofenac: an anti-inflammatory drug given to reduce pain in livestock, but deadly to vultures that subsequently feed on their carcasses. A ban on veterinary diclofenac in India, Nepal and Pakistan in 2006 and Bangladesh in 2010 has allowed vulture populations to stabilise and possibly start to recover in some areas.

However, five of South Asia’s nine vulture species remain Endangered or Critically Endangered; the misuse of human diclofenac to treat livestock, as well as the use of other vulture-toxic veterinary drugs, continues to threaten some South Asian vulture populations with extinction. BirdLife Partners are changing that, through a combination of advocacy, legislation and education.

“We started by buying pharmacies out of large bottles of the drug. Now the district is completely diclofenac-free.”

Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN, BirdLife Partner), with the support of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB, BirdLife in the UK), have been working hard to rid Nepal of diclofenac. “We started by going around shops in Nawalparasi district, buying pharmacists out of large bottles of diclofenac, whilst offering the safe alternative (meloxicam) and raising awareness of the vulture declines”, said Krishna Bhusal, Vulture Conservation Programme Manager, BCN. “Now this district is completely diclofenac-free.”

District by district, from pharmacists’ distributors to farmer’s son, the campaign is on-going, but nearly complete. The aim: a huge multi-district Vulture Safe Zone.

 

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Captive-reared White-rumped Vulture let into pre-release aviary © Bird Conservation Nepal

Meanwhile, White-rumped Vultures have been kept in captivity as an insurance population since 2008. Now, with a safer landscape to roam in, BCN and RSPB are gearing up for the first ever release of captive vultures in South Asia.

Six captive-reared vultures fitted with satellite transmitters are currently exercising their wings in a pre-release aviary near Chitwan National Park, socialising through the wire with wild vultures that are fed at one of the programme’s Vulture Safe Feeding Sites (see map). Later this year, the door will be left open in what will be a huge milestone for the species’ recovery in Nepal.

Aiming for a Vulture-Safe Nepal

© BirdLife, RSPB, BCN, SAVE

  • Dark green: 58 districts that have pledged to be diclofenac-free, together forming a potential Vulture Safe Zone that spans most of the country.
  • Light green: 17 districts not currently engaged, but 5 of these will be by the end of 2017 and the remaining 12 are the focus of a new project starting in 2018.
  • Circles: 6 existing Vulture Safe Feeding Sites
  • Red circle: also the release site
  • Blue polygon: the combined home range in the past six months of 6 wild White-rumped Vultures (Critically Endangered) fitted with satellite transmitters at the release site. This provides a guide to where the majority of the released vultures will range.

“We will track the captive-reared vultures, allowing us to learn more and respond to any threats”, said Toby Galligan, Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science. “Over the next three years, we will deploy more satellite transmitters on wild vultures and captive vultures that are to be released.” 


White-rumped Vulture are also set to benefit from the African-Eurasian Vulture Multi-species Action Plan (Vulture MsAP), recently adopted by 126 countries at the Convention on Migratory Species meeting (CMS COP), where they were also added to CMS Appendix I (the highest-level of protection).

For more on the African-Eurasian Vulture Crisis, see www.birdlife.org/savevultures

For our work with the SAVE partnership in Asia, see www.save-vultures.org