Nepal is a model for vulture conservation
Vultures get a lot of bad press.
Unlike other birds which are praised for their melodious song or bright plumage, vultures have been traditionally reviled for feeding greedily on carcasses, and what many see is as a repulsive look. In many cultures, they are considered an ill omen and the Nepali language has many derogatory phrases like गिद्धे दृष्टि.
A famous dialogue in the critically acclaimed and commercially successful recent Nepali movie Loot proclaims Kathmandu as a ‘the city of vultures’. What an insult to vultures.
This negative perception of vultures does not take into account the enormous ecosystem services provided by the raptors in consuming carrion, and reducing the spread of disease.
In fact, when vultures nearly became extinct in the Subcontinent in the past two decades because of the use of the veterinary anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac, animal carcasses lay rotting in the fields and jungles becoming hotbeds for pathogens.
South Asia first started seeing a massive decline in its vulture population starting the 1990s, and no one quite knew why. The White-rumped, Long-billed and Slender-billed vultures declined by more than 99% in India and Pakistan.
In the Nepal, between 1995 and 2001, there was a 96% decline in the Slender-billed vulture population, and the numbers of White-rumped vultures had gone down by 91% until 2011.
Researchers then zeroed in on the cause: the use of the analgesic diclofenac to treat sick livestock. Residue of the drug in the carcasses of those animals when consumed by vultures caused their kidneys to fail. Studies have shown that just 30ml of diclofenac can kill as many as 800 vultures.
The good news is that Nepal has established itself as a pioneer in vulture conservation over the years, and the birds are now showing signs of coming back.
Nepal is home to nine species of vultures of which seven have undergone considerable decline in recent years. The White-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis), Slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostis), Red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus) and Indian vulture (Gyps indicus) are in the IUCN critically endangered list.
The Egyptian vulture (Nephron percnopterus) is listed as endangered, and three species – Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), Cinerous vulture (Aegypius monachus) and Himalayan Griffon (Gyps himalayensis) -- are near threatened.
The first Vulture Conservation Summit in Kathmandu in 2004 took three key decisions: ban the use of diclofenac, establish breeding centres for endangered vultures, and rehabilitate them in the wild.
In 2006, diclofenac was banned by the governments of South Asia. The same year, Nepal opened world’s first food centre for the birds called the ‘Vulture Restaurant’ locally known as ‘Jatayu Restaurant’ in Nawalparasi district.
Operated and managed locally in an effort to provide the birds of prey with uncontaminated meat, it saw a significant revival of vulture populations in the area. Seven more ‘vulture restaurants’ have been set up across the Tarai and mid-hill districts: Rupandehi, Dang, Kailali, Kaski and Sunsari.
Similarly, a vulture conservation and breeding centre was set up in Kasara in the Chitwan National Park in 2008. The same year a 'Vulture Conservation Action Plan 2009-2013' was approved and implemented followed by a second action plan 2015-2019. The campaign has seen 74 districts (except Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur) declared diclofenac free.
At present, Nepal is on the verge of establishing the world's first vulture sanctuary – which will not have a defined perimeter like other protected areas, but will stretch over 30,000sq km divided into inner core area and a buffer zone. The amount of diclofenac in the core area should be zero and less than 1% in the buffer region.
In order to increase the population of vultures in these protected areas, 31 vultures tagged with satellite devices have been released into the natural habitat in the last three years. Additional monitoring of 30 wild vultures fitted with satellite equipment is being carried out.
Despite these achievements, vulture conservation is not without challenges. Most conservation programs are limited to the Tarai and hence should be expanded to the mid-hills and the mountains.
Apart from diclofenac, other chemicals such as nimuslide, aceclofenac, and ketoprofen also appear to be harmful to vultures and regular monitoring to prevent excessive use of these drugs is recommended. Additional risks also come from declining natural habitat, food shortage and transmission lines.
Vultures mate for life, they stay together from nesting to hatching to rearing their young ones. They are found primarily in the Tarai and mid-hill forests of western Nepal and generally prefer to nest in enormous simal trees.
Despite the negative perception of vultures in culture and folklore, the birds have religious, cultural and environmental significance. Hindus worship it as the vehicle of Saturn. In the Ramayana, the vulture Jatayu fought till his last breath when Ravana abducted Sita. The practice of feeding the deceased to vultures is still prevalent in Himalayan communities that worship the scavenger as carriers of human souls to heaven.
More importantly, in the absence of vultures there will be no scavengers to dispose of carrion, leading to disease outbreaks among humans and cattle.
In monetary terms, one vulture in its lifetime saves about $11,000 for its role in carcass management.
It is in our interest to invest in vulture conservation. The first Saturday of September every year is marked as the International Vulture Awareness Day and it is in its 12th edition this year, Nepal should commit to work together with the communities, governments, environmentalists and conservation groups, because by protecting vultures we preserve biodiversity, and ultimately the safety and health of human beings.
Karun Dewan is with the World Wildlife Fund, Nepal.