Gyps Vulture Reintroduction
To breed and reintroduce three species of gyps vultures to supplement stocks in India, Nepal and Pakistan
Some fifteen years ago field biologists in India noticed significant declines in 3 species of Gyps vultures (Gyps bengalensis, G. indicus and G. tenuirostris). Detailed surveys at that time revealed that populations of these species had suffered over 95% losses across their range in India, Nepal and Pakistan. Research into the causes of the deaths by The Peregrine Fund eventually concluded that a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac, given to cattle primarily for pain relief, if ingested by vultures, resulted in the vulture developing visceral gout with death following quickly. Models showed that there were sufficient numbers of carcasses of cattle treated with diclofenac left in the fields after death for vultures to feed on to result in the population crashes being seen.
Even though the cause has been identified and action to stop the manufacture and use of diclofenac is underway, the death rate continues at about 30-50% per annum as supplies of diclofenac are still available to farmers.
This programme is a good example of how zoos, field conservation organisations and governments can work together in a multi-facetted programme to prevent the extinction of bird species which are crucial to the natural management of ecosystems.
By 2008 there were 3 breeding centres established in India, one in Pakistan and a new centre in Nepal. The Central Zoo Authority is working with the Bombay Natural History Society to develop additional centres associated with zoos in India. Ultimately at least 150 pairs of each species should be held and bred in the centres to ensure sufficient birds are available to re-establish wild breeding colonies in the future. The first hatching of an Oriental white-backed vulture was recorded in 2007 at the main centre in Pinjore, Haryana State, India. Two successful hatchings occurred in 2008 with both chicks being reared. With these successes an increase in breeding behaviour (pairings, nest building and egg laying) in all species was seen in 2008.
Each year vultures are being caught in the wild for the breeding centres. Recent surveys indicate that the rate of loss of the wild populations continues. It is therefore vital to bring vultures in a safe environment in the breeding centres as extinctions in the wild is still a real possibility. All vultures taken from the wild are done so with government approval and where necessary in India, with State Government permits. In most cases the wild caught vultures are fledglings taken from nests, leaving the adult breeding birds. Rescued vultures found sick or injured or from events such as the kite festival in Gujarat have contributed a significant number to the centres.
As there are no similar projects in the range countries, developing the expertise to manage the breeding centres within each country is crucial. Staff at the centres are being supported and trained in the necessary skills (husbandry and veterinary) by the Zoological Society of London, the National Bird of Prey Trust, the Hawk Conservancy Trust, the International Centre for Birds of Prey and others as and when required. Having a body of skills in intensive conservation breeding and the veterinary care of large raptors will be a significant result from this programme and already BNHS staff are proving the value of the skills they have developed at the breeding centres.
Meloxicam has been identified as a safe alternative veterinary drug and is being made available throughout the region as quickly as possible. Every effort is being made to provide meloxicam at similar costs to the farmers as diclofenac and thus remove resistance to its use. All governments are now engaged fully and provide essential support to the programme. However there is still much to do and the programme will be reliant on legislative support and the assistance of the relevant ministries over the life-time of the programme. The manufacture of diclofenac has been banned in all 3 countries but efforts continue to ban the use of the drug completely.
Public awareness campaigns are operational in all 3 countries, but the scale of the challenge is huge and there is a long way to go before even reasonable coverage of the programme in communities close to surviving vulture populations is achieved. Monitoring wild populations of the targets species continues where possible as well as surveys of other species to measure the possible impact of diclofenac on other scavenging birds. There are early indications that a number of other species could be vulnerable to diclofenac.
Local initiatives are being planned to trial models for protecting wild populations and/or identifying and preparing possible release sites for the future e.g. the safe cow project in Nepal, managed by Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) which includes a vulture restaurant for visitors to watch wild vultures. Although this is early in the programme it is worth investigating new ideas for securing the future of existing wild populations rather than committing the considerable resources needed to maintain high numbers of all 3 species in breeding centres or watching wild populations go extinct when resources are not available.
It is anticipated that it will be many years before diclofenac is completely out of the system in all three countries and reintroductions can be considered so preparations have to be made for a 15 – 20 year programme or longer.
All partners have made a considerable commitment to the long term nature of the programme but there will always be a need for additional resources and funding for this programme if these three species of Gyps vulture are to survive.
WAZA Conservation Project 08001 is supported by The Zoological Society of London, The International Centre for Birds of Prey; The Hawk Conservancy Trust; Central Zoo, Kathmandu; The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS); The Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), Nepal; The National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), Nepal; Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN); WWF Pakistan; Punjab Forest, Wildlife and Fisheries Department; Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD); The State of Haryana, India; The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB); The National Bird of Prey Trust (NBPT); Darwin Initiative and The UK Trust for Nature Conservation in Nepal.
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