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Why You Should Love Vultures Part 3: What hope for Asia's decimated vulture populations?

Image: Dr Devojit Das working at the vulture conservation and breeding centre in Pinjore.

Is there hope for Asia’s decimated vulture population?

“Vulture populations are precariously small and will remain vulnerable… until numbers have increased substantially… Even under the most favourable conditions, the shortest period in which a wild vulture population can double in size is about ten years.[1]

If you’ve been following our pieces on ecosystem health, the catastrophic decline of vultures on the Indian subcontinent, and how the near loss of a keystone species has impacted on the whole environment, including human mortality rates, you’d be forgiven for thinking the future looks bleak. The good news is that a consortium of 25 conservation partners, working together for well over a decade under the banner of SAVE – Save Asia’s Vultures from Extinction – and coordinated by the RSBP, have been doing some amazing work to restore vulture numbers. But there’s no room for complacency.

The approach to saving vultures and restoring their numbers is essentially twofold. From a legislative point of view, the swift banning of diclofenac for veterinary use by the governments of India, Nepal and Pakistan in 2006 was key, with Bangladesh following suit in 2010[2]. Work continues to monitor and clamp down on illegal diclofenac use[3], identify other NSAIDs toxic to vultures[4], find safe and affordable alternatives (primarily meloxicam but more recently tolfenamic acid) and educate local vets and farmers. Before the ban in India, traces of diclofenac were found in 11% of cattle carcasses surveyed. By 2013, this has dropped to less than 2% in almost all areas concerned[5]. Bangladesh is currently carrying out similar studies.

Meanwhile, captive breeding programmes, the establishment of Vulture Safe Zones for wild birds and the use of GPS tracking on both previously captive and wild birds have been and continue to be absolutely central to their continuing recovery and ultimate survival. Local and national governments of all four vulture range stats in the Indian subcontinent have implemented National Action Plans and are linking their activities through the Regional Steering Committee for Vulture Conservation[6].

Where captive populations have been established, the birds are surviving well and second generation birds are now breeding. Releases of captive-bred vultures have taken place in Nepal and India, and Pakistan is planning its first release imminently.

But the wild is not always a safe place. To try to protect the birds, Nepal has pioneered Vulture Safe Zones, which have been established around existing breeding colonies, using a radius of 100km to demarcate the area. Intensive campaigns are held within the VSZs to remove all toxic NSAIDs from the food supply of the remaining small populations of wild vultures. VSZs are being introduced in other states, and should also help protect breeding sites from the expansion of infrastructure, industry and housing. Electricity transmission lines and wind turbines are also potential threats.

Regular monitoring of vultures in India has confirmed that declines have slowed or ceased, while in Nepal vulture populations have increased consistently since 2012, with an annual increase of 2-3% for the last five years[7]. As a result, Nepal has been able to wind down its captive breeding programme, with the last group of captive-bred white-rumped vultures released into the wild last month. Monitoring in Pakistan and Bangladesh also suggests that the declines have slowed or even reversed[8].

The remarkable cooperative efforts made to save vultures are certainly making a difference. But they remain extremely vulnerable, given the dramatic losses, the slow rate at which they breed and the fact it takes ten years for a wild population to double in size. Work continues to regulate NSAIDs, get vets and farmers on side, protect nest sites which are threatened by tree-felling or development, and to discourage the placement of poison bate, intended to kill other predators but which ends up unintentionally killing vultures. As more captive-bred and wild birds are satellite tagged (getting harness design right has been a challenge!)[9], it will be increasingly possible to know where the birds go, identify causes of mortality, build up a database and take action to address any threats, as well as potentially rescue and rehabilitate injured and even poisoned birds.

So, is there hope for Asia’s decimated vulture population? Yes! But the tasks ahead are formidable.

Our next story will look at the role WVI hopes to play to support and complement the work of SAVE, and the range state governments in theIndian subcontinent, through, for example, health checks, pathology training and continued avian first aid workshops.

Find out more about the One Health concept, why vultures are so misunderstood and why they are the best animals for the job - because nobody does it better.

[1] SAVE, A Blueprint for the Recovery of Asia’s Globally Threatened Vultures, February 2021, p.iv-v

[2] SAVE, A Blueprint for the Recovery of Asia’s Globally Threatened Vultures, February 2021, p.iii

[3] Including limiting the sale of diclofenac for human medicine to 3ml formulations, banning large 30ml vials which are not needed for human treatment: https://india.mongabay.com/2018/02/declining-vulture-population-can-cause-a-health-crisis/

[4] Todate, aceclofenac, carprofen, flunixin and ketoprofen are known to be toxic to vultures but are still in use: https://india.mongabay.com/2018/02/declining-vulture-population-can-cause-a-health-crisis/

[5] https://india.mongabay.com/2018/02/declining-vulture-population-can-cause-a-health-crisis/

[6] SAVE, A Blueprint for the Recovery of Asia’s Globally Threatened Vultures, February 2021, p.iii

[7] https://www.animalfriendly.earth/11-forty-million-vultures/?fbclid=IwAR3rLEQv5zE87NKkcAEu3ifoSu10IRlKv-45aANhz_DzvQLLoevDEpd-LuM

[8] SAVE, A Blueprint for the Recovery of Asia’s Globally Threatened Vultures, February 2021, p.iv

[9] https://www.animalfriendly.earth/11-forty-million-vultures/?fbclid=IwAR3rLEQv5zE87NKkcAEu3ifoSu10IRlKv-45aANhz_DzvQLLoevDEpd-LuM