Reclaiming the skies

by ZSL on

Once abundant, vultures of South Asia have seen a catastrophic decline of around 95% in their populations since the early 1990s. These declines occurred due to the use of a Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug (NSAID), called diclofenac, in domestic livestock. Vultures are exposed to such drugs when they consume the carcasses of livestock that have been treated and then died, their tissues remaining contaminated with NSAIDs. Because vultures cannot metabolise these drugs in the same way as mammals, they are highly toxic to the birds, and precipitate kidney failure and death. Studies show that a contaminated carcass can kill around 350-800 individual vultures and modelling predicts that less than 1% of such cows in the wild need to be contaminated to cause declines of the scale observed.

Photo - A white-rumped vulture perched on a tree branch and stretching it's wings

To halt and reverse these rapid declines of vultures, Nepal banned the veterinary use of diclofenac from 2006 and opted to produce and use the safer NSAID, meloxicam, instead. Importantly, Nepal's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC) established a Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre (VCBC) at Kasara in Chitwan National Park in 2008. The centre is operated by the park with support from Nepal’s National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) and others, including the UK-based RSPB, ZSL and Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN).  

60 white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis) chicks were collected from several districts of Nepal to be raised at the VCBC. These vultures started breeding from 2012 and to date have reared 18 chicks. To optimise the health and welfare of these vultures in captivity, ZSL has supported the VCBC with a routine and reactive health programme for these birds since the establishment of the facility. In 2017, the DNPWC established a Release Aviary in the western sector, with support from multiple organisations, including ZSL. All vultures selected for release are brought to this aviary some weeks beforehand, to acclimatize with their surroundings and the few remaining wild vultures present in the area. In October this year, ZSL joined partners at the release site to health check all birds due for release.

Photo - A white-rumped vulture being carefully held by three conservationists while another is attaching a tag

On 19 October 2019, the DNPWC released 13 white-rumped vultures. The event was attended by the newly appointed Director General of DNPWC, Mr Gopal Prakash Bhattarai. Other notable guests included Mr Sharad Dhakal (Director, National Park and Wildlife Reserve Directorate of the Nepal Army), Mr Narayan Rupakheti (Chief Conservation Officer, Chitwan National Park), Mr Purneshwar Subedi (DFO, Divisional Forest Office, Nawalpur), Ms Chandra Kumari Pun (Mayor, Kawasoti Municipality), Mr Ram Kumar Aryal (NTNC-BCC), Mr DB Chaudhari (Coordinator, Jatayu Restaurant) and representatives from RSPB, ZSL, local communities and other relevant stakeholders. Previously, six captive-bred vultures were released in 2017, and 12 in 2018, bringing the total number to 31. In achieving this, Nepal became the first country in the world to successfully release white-rumped vultures. 

All 31 birds released to date have been fitted with satellite tags to enable scientists to track their movement and behavior. One of the birds even managed to fly as far as Jammu near the Pakistan-India border, some 1100 km northwest of the release site at Pithauli! The data obtained from the tags show these birds roam over an area of 24000 km2, covering 20 districts of Nepal. Concurrently, 30 wild vultures have also been fitted with satellite tags. The data obtained from these tags will enable scientists to learn about the interaction between the wild and the captive reared birds. 

Photo - A large group of white-rumped vultures sat on the ground in the wild

The vulture conservation success that Nepal has achieved so far has been a result of DNPWC's two comprehensive five yearly Vulture Conservation Action Plans, VCAP 2009-2013 and VCAP 2015-2019. Led by the DNPWC with excellent all-round collaboration from conservation partners, Nepal is closing in on its vision of a Vulture Safe Area. With this, DNPWC, and all its conservation partners, hope that vultures will reclaim the skies and, through their extraordinary natural scavenging capacity, once again keep Nepal’s ecosystems clean.

More Vulture conservation in India and Nepal

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