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Operation Avian: Saving India's Endangered Birds

Saving India’s Endangered Birds

Image: Matthew and Ashley patching up an Egyptian vulture during the 2018 kite-flying festival.

At last, the much anticipated Operation Avian training workshops in India have a date!

It’s been a long wait post-Covid, but vet nurse Matthew Rendle and vet Ashley Clayton will be joining Indian wildlife vet Dr Ushma Patel in Jaipur next January to train a group of vets and wildlife professionals – rescuers and rehabilitators - from across the country. They will be supported by other expert vets and vet nurses from India and further afield.

Participants will be invited from areas where they are most likely to encounter critically endangered birds, like the Great Indian Bustard, the white-rumped vulture and the slender-billed vulture.

In partnership with local wildlife rescue RAKSHA Jaipur, Matthew, Ashley and Ushma aim to train a total of 150 vets over three years, helping them develop skills that mean they will be better equipped to deal with avian casualties. This is particularly vital when it comes to the most endangered birds, where the successful rehabilitation of every sick or injured individual can make a real difference to the species’ ultimate survival. IUCN figures record 93 avian species in India that are currently critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.

How will it work?

For the next three years, from 2023 until 2025, an annual two day conference will be held for around 100 delegates, at least half of whom will be vets. Around 15 veterinary delegates will then be invited to stay on to take part in a practical clinical course, that will coincide with the annual kite-flying festival, Uttarayan, which traditionally marks the end of winter.

The event provides a unique opportunity for training in avian casualties, as every year thousands of birds very sadly get entangled in carelessly discarded kite string and sustain terrible injuries. Education around the festival is helping to reduce the problem, with people being encouraged to avoid flying kites at dawn or dusk for example, and dispose of kite string carefully. Nevertheless, organisations like RAKSHA can expect to treat 1000birds a week during the festival.

In the past, Matt, Ashley and Ushma have provided clinical support to those working to save the casualties, but have been struck by the lack of appropriate veterinary expertise, with rescues often relying on the help of well-meaning but untrained members of the public. This is a chance to address that skills gap. The 15 vets taking part in January will have the chance to run their own clinical case from start to finish, with the support of the WVI team, Dr Patel and local partner RAKSHA Jaipur. The hope is to boost their confidence and competence when it comes to avian casualties and there will be a prize for the best case report, demonstrating the use of veterinary skills learnt at the conference.

The conference itself will be hosted jointly by RAKSHA Jaipur, WVI, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Wildlife Trust of India, and will take place at the local veterinary university. Topics covered will range from avian triage and first aid, including analgesia, fluid therapy and wound management, to fracture fixation, post-operative nutritional care, dealing with complications and practical considerations around releasing the birds back into the wild. The first day will be lecture-based, with a second day of practical workshops for all delegates. All lectures will be recorded, translated and made openly available for other in-country wildlife professionals to access.

 RAKSHA Jaipur

During Matthew’s last visit to India, just before lockdown in 2020, Dr Patel introduced him to the founder of RAKSHA, Rohit Gangwal, an ornithologist with 25 years of experience in the rescue and rehabilitation of many bird species. Ushma had already helped RAKSHA during several kite festivals and had noted that while rehabilitation was being well-managed, the provision of veterinary care was less effective, not least due to the challenges of having to work in temporary trauma centres which were often over-crowded and poorly equipped. With her support and encouragement, RAKSHA was subsequently able to secure permanent premises and set up an operating theatre, making it a good option for hosting the 15 delegates who will participate in the four day clinical coaching course.

Matthew and Ashley first worked with Dr Patel in Ahmedabad during the 2018 kite festival. Apart from sharing her considerable avian orthopaedic skills, next year Ushma will be able to provide workshops in the local language for the conference, and make sure that training and protocols are appropriate for the facilities and equipment likely to be available to participants in their local areas.

We are delighted that we can now take this project forward. By partnering with RAKSHA and Dr Patel, we hope to play a vital role in building avian veterinary expertise in India and help save some of the country’s most endangered birds. With only 300 Great Indian Bustards left in the wild, for example, there isn’t a moment to lose.

Ashley with a happy-looking vulture in recovery.