In the late 1990s and early 2000s it became apparent that the Oriental White-backed Vulture, Gyps bengalensis, Long-billed Vulture, Gyps indicus, and Slender-billed Vulture, Gyps tenuirostris, were undergoing rapid population declines across Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, loosing roughly 30-40% of their population each year. This was eventually found to have been caused by widespread use of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac as a veterinary medicine for Cattle, the main food source of these Vultures across much of their range. Diclofenac and related drugs were found to be highly toxic to the Vultures, with mass death events occurring due to incidental poisoning.
This population decline was so severe that all three species were classed as Critically Endangered under the terms of the International Union Forthe Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species (there are only two higher categories, ‘Extinct in the Wild’ and ‘Extinct’), and many Birds were taken from the wild for use in a captive breeding program, to prevent the Vultures from becoming completely extinct (conservationists are generally extremely reluctant to do this as it is expensive, time consuming, and there is a very high mortality rate – typically 40-60% - among captive bred birds released in the wild).
Since this time the use of Diclofenac as a veterinary medicine has been banned across all four countries, though it is known that medicine officially designated for Human use is still widely used to treat Cattle, and that in some areas it has been replaced with related drugs which are equally toxic to Vultures, and populations in some areas have stabilized enough that Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction, an umbrella group of governmental and non-governmental agencies involved in conservation across South Asia, is beginning the first steps of a re-introduction programme for the Vultures.
In a paper published in the July-September 2014 edition of the journal Mistnet, Ananya Mukherjee and Toby Galligan of the Royal Society forthe Protection of Birds, Vibhu Prakash of the Bombay Natural History Society, Khadananda Paudel of Bird Conservation Nepal, Uzma Khan of WWF Pakistan, Satya Prakash of the Neo Human Foundation, Sachin Ranade, Kartik Shastri and Ruchi Dave, also of the Bombay Natural History Society and Paul Donald and Chris Bowden, also of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, discuss the creation of Vulture Safe Zones for the re-introduction of Gyps Vultures across South Asia.
The Critically Endangered White-backed Vulture, Gyps bengalensis. Dhritiman Mukherjee/Misnet/Bombay Natural History Society.
While ideally it would be desirable to fully eliminate the use of Diclofenac and similar non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs across South Asia, making the entire region once more a safe environment for the Vultures, nobody believes that this is a reasonable prospect in the near future. Instead the Vulture Safe Zone concept, which was developed by Bird Conservation Nepal and which is now being spread to Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, seeks to create a network of safe areas across the countries where populations can recover and re-introductions occur, with the long-term aim of re-establishing the Birds across their full range.
Mukherjee et al. recommend the initial creation of provisional Vulture Safe Zones centred on surviving breeding colonies of Vultures. Due to the far-ranging foraging activities of the Birds, such a provisional Safe Zone should have a radius of at least 100 km. This means it will cover over 30 000 km2 of land, an area likely to include hundreds of communities, millions of potential Diclofenac-using livestock owners, tens of millions of Cattle and may also cross state and national borders.
Once such an area has been identified, it is necessary to establish a team of field biologists and advocacy officers, capable of monitoring drug-use in Cattle and the health of Vultures, as well as communicating the aims of the project and hazards of Diclofenac use to local communities and decision makers.
Awareness workshop at Forest Department, DudhwaNational Park in Uttar Pradesh. Ananya Mukherjee/Misnet/Bombay Natural History Society.
The most important process in the establishment of a Vulture Safe Zone is the advocacy of Diclofenac-awareness to pharmacists, veterinarians, paravets (unqualified animal-healthcare practitioners) and livestock owners within the provisional Safe Zone. Such a process would typically start with meetings with government officials responsible for forest and environmental management, drug control and animal husbandry, which would then be followed up by meetings with grassroots organisations such as dairy cooperatives and community groups. It is particularly important to identify and reach networks of untrained veterinary workers (paravets) working within Cattle-herding communities.
Within the provisional Vulture Safe Zone the Vulture population should be subject to regular surveying, particularly of breeding success. Where possible subsidised alternatives to Diclofenac and similar non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Meloxicam, can be distributed; in Nepal local NGOs carried out a variety of awareness raising projects, such as ritually burning supplies of Diclofenac. Local pharmaceutical companies should also be contacted and reminded of their responsibilities, particularly the legal implications of killing highly protected Birds.
Distribution of subsidized Meloxicam in Jharkhand. Satya Prakash/Misnet/Bombay Natural History Society.
Within a provisional Vulture Safe Zone it is recommended that the safety of the Vultures be monitored in three ways.
Firstly local pharmacies should be monitored for Diclofenac and similar non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Diclofenac is not actually illegal for Human consumption, though it is for use in livestock, creating a problem of supplies which are officially for Humans but used in Cattle. However vials genuinely intended for Human use contain doses in the 2-5 ml range, while those for Cattle are typically 30-50 ml (i.e. 10 times as large), making monitoring supplies for intended use possible. Where Diclofenac is being sold for livestock use it is recommended that advocacy work be stepped up. Where it has apparently disappeared it is still important to carry out regular surveys.
Once obvious supplies of veterinary Diclofenac have disappeared from local pharmacies it is possible to begin monitoring Cattle and other domestic Ungulate carcasses for the presence of the drug (doing this before the supplies have been eliminated tends to be a waste of resources). Ideally around 800 carcasses should be monitored over a two year period within each provisional Vulture Safe Zone, though in practice finding this many carcasses can be a challenge.
Vulture carcasses can also be monitored for the presence of Diclofenac, but these can be even harder to locate. Instead Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction are experimenting with satellite telemetry, attaching radio transmitters to a small number of Vultures (monitoring the whole population in this way would be impossible as the process is expensive and requires specialist skills), in order to monitor their movements and locate the carcasses quickly if they die.
Mukherjee et al. also note that Vulture restaurants have been successfully combined with Vulture Safe Zones in Nepal. Such restaurants provide safe feeding environments for the Vultures at a single geographical point, which is of limited direct value since Vultures are dying of poisoning rather than starvation across South Asia, however these can be high-profile locations which attract the attention of decision makers, communities, and donor organizations, thereby raising the profile of Vulture conservation. At Vulture restaurants elderly Cattle are bought from or donated by the local community and looked after till they die of natural causes. While they are being cared for alternatives to Diclofenac and similar non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are used if pain relief is necessary. Since Diclofenac can remain in the bodies of Cattle for up to a week, only Cattle which have been looked after at the restaurant for at least ten days are used to feed the Vultures, other animals being buried to avoid accidental poisoning. However while such sites are good at raising the profile of Vulture conservation, they are expensive to run, and serious thought needs to be given as to whether such funds could be used on other forms of advocacy.
Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction and associated groups are currently working on the establishment of twelve Vulture Safe Zones at, Southern Sindh in Pakistan, Southern Gujarat, Central Gujarat, Lowland Uttarakhand, Central Madhya Pradesh, North-eastern Uttar Pradesh, Northern Jharkhand and Central Assam in India; Western Lowland and Central Highland in Nepal and Southern and Northern Bangladesh.
Vultures in aviary at a Conservation Breeding Centre. Chris Bowden/RSPB//Misnet/Bombay Natural History Society.
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