ZSL vet offers India’s vultures a lifeline
Monday 13 February 2006
The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has undertaken a successful mission to save critically endangered vultures injured in India’s annual Kite Festival.
Hundreds of birds are severely injured in the Kite Festival which is held to celebrate the end of winter. Fighter kites with strings covered in powdered glass are flown by competitors, who attempt to cut rival kites out of the sky. Numerous birds become entangled in the kite strings as they fly. Many are killed and, of the survivors, 90% are permanently disabled and never fly again.
Estimates suggest 65% of a local vulture population were badly injured during the kite festival, with a number of vultures bleeding to death before they could be rescued.
“The Kite Festival represents a serious threat to these already critically endangered species,” says, Andrew Routh, Senior Veterinary Officer at ZSL. “In 2005, vultures injured in the Kite Festival and taken to Rescue Centres had poor survival rate. A number of vultures died because local vets did not have the experience to save them. ZSL hopes to leave the vets with a legacy of skills they will be able to use to save injured birds in the future.”
Routh travelled to Gujarat to provide first aid care and surgery for vultures injured in the Kite Festival as well as to share his knowledge of avian medicine, anaesthesia and surgery with the veterinary teams at Ahmedabad’s Animal Help Foundation’s (AHF) Rescue Centre and ZSL’s partners in the Vulture Recovery Programme from the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).
Working alongside the AHF team and utilising their facilities, Routh’s expertise ensured the survival of hundred per cent of the vultures admitted to the Rescue Centre. Despite being permanently disabled, these vultures can be transferred to captive breeding centres where they will play a vital role in the conservation of their species.
Routh commented, “Populations of Indian vultures are declining so fast it is vital that conservationists are able to collect as many vultures from the wild for the breeding centres as possible. To lose vultures through injury would be a waste of these fascinating and necessary birds.”
Routh has made two previous trips to India to deliver veterinary workshops offering substantial practical training for veterinary surgeons working on the Vulture Recovery Programme. He is consulted regularly regarding the ongoing healthcare of all the vultures at the Vulture Breeding Centre in Pinjore, ensuring the survival of the endangered species.
Once the rescued vultures have recovered they will be relocated to one of the Vulture Recovery Programme’s breeding centres, where they can continue their lives in safety whilst making a crucial contribution to the conservation of their species.
Three of India’s most common griffon vulture species have declined at an alarming rate in the last decade, partially due to the well documented use of diclofenac. The slow breeding habits of these vultures suggest that many years of careful conservation are needed before they will be safe from extinction. Without immediate action it may be too late to save these species; some experts estimate that wild vulture populations may disappear completely within five years.
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Notes to editors
The Kite Festival in Gujarat is held over 14th and 15th January every year.
There are three Gyps species in India: Oriental white-backed Gyps bengalensis, long-billed G. indicus and slender-billed G. tenuirostris. All are scavengers and were previously seen in huge numbers, providing an essential role in clearing carcases.
The Vulture Recovery Programme is a Darwin-funded scheme, run by ZSL and its project partners Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds (RSPB).
UK Government’s Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species was established in 1999. In 2001, the project awarded a grant to ZSL to allow the vulture project partners to identify the cause of vulture decline and to produce a Recovery Plan for the affected species.
The Vulture Recovery Programme aims to establish sufficient numbers from each of three species in a number of breeding centres. Centres have been established at Pinjore and Buxa and further centres are planned at several sites within the species’ natural range in India, Pakistan and Nepal. Once their environment is safe and free from diclofenac, the captive-born vultures will be released into the wild.
The catastrophic decline of these three species has been identified as secondary poisoning with diclofenac, a drug routinely used to treat cattle. Vultures are extremely sensitive to diclofenac and tissue eaten from carcasses of recently treated animals will kill affect vultures within a matter of days.
In 2005, the Indian government, after lobbying from ZSL, RSPB and BNHS amongst others, announced plans for a complete ban on the use of for its use in cattle.
Meloxicam has been suggested as an alternative to diclofenac following trials in vultures. This means the welfare of sick farm animals can still be addressed without further endangering vultures.
Two of the three affected vulture species, the Oriental white-backed and the long-billed vulture, once regarded as very common in India, are now listed as critically endangered by the IUCN – The World Conservation Union. Between 1999 and 2003 the Oriental white-backed vulture declined by 99.7% and the long-billed vulture declined by 97.4%. The third affected species, the slender-billed vulture, has historically been uncommon, but now is regarded as extremely rare.
Previously there were estimated to be groups of more than 250 vultures gathered at several breeding sites around Ahmedabad.
In addition to threatening the imminent extinction of three species of vulture, these dramatic declines present a whole range of threats, both ecologically and to human health. The absence of such important scavengers will almost certainly influence the numbers and distribution of other scavenging species.
Joanna Green - 020 74496236 - email@example.com