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Initiative to save Asia's vultures
By Atul Sathe

Two prominent conservation groups join hands to save vultures of Asia.


As a part of the second phase of the ongoing vulture conservation efforts in India, the ambitious “Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction” (SAVE) Consortium was launched recently in New Delhi by Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Environment and Forests, Government of India. Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and UK-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) will carry forward the 10-year Strategy chalked out to conserve vultures, having successfully completed the first phase of the programme by breeding vultures of three Critically Endangered species in captivity. The major task going forward is to identify Vulture Safe Zones across South Asia for the eventual release of the captive bred vultures into the wild over a 4-5 year time-frame.

Mr Ramesh launched the SAVE Consortium and a 16-minute film on vulture conservation. Speaking on the occasion, Prof. Ian Newton, Chairman, SAVE Consortium, said, “In terms of urgency this is probably the greatest bird conservation problem in the world. Three vulture species have reduced by over 99% within just 15 years and still declining. It is the first time that a veterinary drug has been implicated in a major conservation problem and we need to take it seriously. It involves not just the loss of three species, but also a huge environmental hygiene problem.”

Dr Asad R Rahmani, Director, BNHS added that without removing the killer-drug diclofenac, it will be difficult to recover the vulture population. He urged the Government of India and state governments to see that veterinary use of diclofenac is totally prohibited all over India.

The SAVE Consortium has been launched as a group of multi-national vulture experts in order to coordinate the work of the second phase of vulture conservation and to meet the myriad challenges. SAVE will be instrumental in advocacy, campaigning and fund-raising. SAVE has been set up with the following objectives.

  • To agree and implement an overall work programme
  • To provide a forum for coordination, guidance and reporting
  • To raise the profile of the recovery programme
  • To provide a coordinated focus for fundraising efforts
  • To provide an instantly recognizable brand to facilitate advocacy work

Organizations and individuals can join SAVE as core members, project members or government members. SAVE will be run by an invited Board and will meet annually to review progress and suggest improvements. Further information is available on the newly launched website www.save-vultures.org, where there is also scope for online donations to support this important work.

SAVE is supported by the Government of India and the state governments of Haryana, West Bengal and Assam in taking forward the vulture conservation programme. The other organizations involved in vulture conservation so far in South Asia are Peregrine Fund, Zoological Society of London, Institute of Zoology, Indian Veterinary Research Institute, International Centre for Birds of Prey, National Trust for Nature Conservation, Bird Conservation Nepal and Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation – Nepal.

By the late-1990s, it had become apparent that there were catastrophic declines occurring in several species of vulture in India. Nationwide road transect surveys confirmed declines approaching 50% per year. The species most affected belong to the genus Gyps: Oriental white-backed vulture Gyps bengalensis, Long-billed vulture Gyps indicus and Slender-billed vulture Gyps tenuirostris. In the 1980s, Oriental white-backed vulture was thought to be the most common large bird of prey in the world with a population of tens of millions. Between 1992 and 2007 its population crashed by 99.9%, bringing it to the brink of extinction. The other two species are also in perilous state. Subsequent work has shown that similar declines have occurred in other countries in Asia, including Nepal and Pakistan.

In 2003 Peregrine Fund identified poisoning by the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) diclofenac as the cause of these population crashes. Diclofenac, one of the cheapest and most widely used NSAIDs since its patent lapsed, has proved to be highly toxic to Gyps vultures. After death, cattle carcasses are left to be consumed by vultures, which ingest drug residues causing kidney failure. The birds become sick and die within a few days. Several alternative NSAIDs have also been found to be toxic to Gyps vultures. So far, the only veterinary NSAID known to be ‘vulture safe’ is meloxicam.

Once the cause of decline in vulture numbers was identified, BNHS with financial support from RSPB, set about on its conservation work, which includes high-level advocacy programme to manufacture and use of veterinary diclofenac, setting up of captive breeding centres to establish a source of birds for reintroduction into the wild in future, monitoring level of diclofenac in cattle carcasses and identifying alternatives and reduce exposure of wild vultures to diclofenac contaminated food.

In 2003 Peregrine Fund identified poisoning by the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) diclofenac as the cause of these population crashes. Diclofenac, one of the cheapest and most widely used NSAIDs since its patent lapsed, has proved to be highly toxic to Gyps vultures.

BNHS and RSPB have been successful in obtaining a complete ban on manufacture, import and sale of veterinary diclofenac in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Three Vulture Conservation Breeding Centres (VCBCs) are being successfully run in India at Pinjore (Haryana), Rajabhatkhawa (West Bengal) and Rani (Assam) and one in Nepal (Chitwan). Moreover, levels of diclofenac contamination of cattle in India have begun to reduce.

The first captive-bred Oriental white-backed chicks fledged in 2007, the first Slender-billed chicks in 2009 and the first Long-billed vulture fledglings were produced by artificial incubation and rearing in 2010. Nine Oriental white-backed vultures have been produced in captivity and this is just the start of the breeding programme.

Future challenges

Setting up of “Vulture Safe Zones”: In Nepal, intensive awareness work combined with ‘vulture restaurants’ (where diclofenac-free meat is provided near wild vulture colonies) have achieved some success. But satellite tagging has shown that vultures from Nepal frequently visit neighbouring areas in India. Vulture Safe Zones (VSZs) near ‘vulture restaurants’ need to be big enough. Although there have been some efforts to set up VSZs in various parts of India, they also need to be set up near the Nepal border. Success of VSZs crucially depends upon successful advocacy around such areas and the restaurants are mainly used as tourist attractions.

Size of task: Despite its veterinary use being illegal, diclofenac is still being detected in cattle carcasses in India. The main source now is diclofenac labelled for human use. Preventing illegal use of this for veterinary purposes is now a major challenge. Before any releases can take place, we have to be certain that the chosen zone is diclofenac-free within at least a 100-km radius. To achieve this, intense, targeted grass-roots advocacy is needed. Ultimately, entire South Asia should be cleared of diclofenac and other hazardous NSAIDs.

Technical issues: In order to press for improved enforcement of the regulations on diclofenac and to be certain that the chosen vulture release zones are diclofenac-free within at least a 100-km radius, currently liver samples of dead cattle are taken to laboratory for testing. There is a need to develop a ‘dip stick’ test that would allow immediate testing of samples in the field.

Safe alternatives: Alternative NSAIDs to diclofenac exist, but the only one known to be safe to vultures is meloxicam. Now out of patent, meloxicam produced by several manufacturers in India has strong alkalinity, which causes pain to cattle and livestock owners are reluctant to use it. Pharma companies need to be persuaded to formulate improved versions to avoid this problem. Other possible safe alternatives also need to be identified.

High costs: Annual project expenditure is currently in the region of £400,000, which is set to increase. Increased advocacy, need to develop a ‘dip-stick’ testing for diclofenac in cattle carcasses and the growing cost of providing safe food for the captive- breeding population are leading to rise in costs. One silver lining is that Haryana State Government has agreed to fund construction work at Pinjore Centre and Assam State Government has built a reception/visitor centre and office. It is likely that various state governments and Central Government in India and in Nepal will provide more such support.

Atul Sathe  |  atulsathe@yahoo.com

Atul Sathe is Public Relations Officer of Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai.

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