The trouble with a scavenger species is that even when it is on the verge of extinction no one wants to save it. Vultures have this problem.
Four years ago, vultures suddenly started disappearing over the subcontinent. No one knew why: some suspected pesticides, others thought the birds were running out of food. Whatever it was, three species of vultures were vanishing. Other kinds of vultures and secondary scavengers did not seem to be affected.
Even as researchers investigated the mystery in India, Pakistan and Nepal, they noticed a catastrophic decrease in vulture numbers. Populations of the Oriental White-backed Vulture, Slender-billed Vulture and Long-billed Vulture in the three countries dropped by between 95-97 percent. Considering that the Oriental White-backed Vulture had been considered one of the most abundant large raptors in the world, such population declines had never been seen since the extinction of the Great Auk or the Passenger Pigeon in the 19th century.
Soon, researchers zeroed in on the cause. Analysing the remains of dead vultures in Punjab and Nepal, scientists from the US-based Peregrine Fund found that the vultures were dying because of the presence of diclofenac in livestock carcasses, an anti-inflammatory drug used widely in human and veterinary medicine in South Asia. Lindsay Oaks of Washington State University said he and other researchers were puzzled by the fact that the vultures were dying of kidney failure, and soon they narrowed it to residual diclofenac. Three species of vultures are hypersensitive to the drug that they ingest from dead animals leading to renal failure, avian visceral gout and death.
Oaks and his fellow researchers met with government officials and conservationists from India, Pakistan and Nepal at a 'vulture summit' in Kathmandu last month to present the findings and decide what to do. They agreed on a 'Kathmandu Declaration' under which the delegations of the three countries agreed that immediate steps were necessary. Narayan Poudel of Nepal's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC) has said the government will assist captive breeding efforts and seek a ban on the use of the drug in Nepal. The conservation group, Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN), is currently negotiating with the government for land near Chitwan to build the centre. Two other range countries, Bangladesh and Bhutan, were not present at the meeting but have expressed their willingness to act upon the recommendations.
In Nepal, the Oriental White-backed Vulture and the Slender-billed Vulture are found mostly in the tarai, churia and lower reaches of the mid-mountains. Nepal also hosts the Himalayan Griffon, the Eurasian Griffon, the Lammergeier, the Egyptian Vulture and the Cinerous Vulture. The Nepal Vulture Study, a partnership of The Peregrine Fund and BCN, is now looking into whether the declines are also affecting the Himalayan Griffon Vultures.
In Koshi Tappu, the decline in the last few years has been catastrophic. In 2000, there were 67 breeding pairs of nesting vultures. This number dropped to three breeding pairs this year, according to BCN. Villagers living near Milke Danda in eastern Nepal say the Lammergeier has all but disappeared from cliffs that were regular dwelling sites. An IUCN staff member from Pokhara recalls: "As children we'd see large flocks of vultures feeding on the carcasses of mules from the Jomsom trail. The birds would get so fat, they could hardly fly. The place is still the same but the vultures aren't there any more."
Because of the country's other pressing concerns, conservation is taking a backseat, making the job of launching a campaign to save vultures difficult. Conservationists say officials need to understand the importance of these birds to ecosystem integrity, livelihoods and public health. Vultures have long been the most effective natural scavengers in our environment. They quickly dispose of the remains of diseased and old animals. They remain unaffected and prevent catastrophic animal and human disease epidemics from spreading. Bone pickers depended on these birds for other reasons: after the hide collectors were done with skinning the dead animals, they waited for vultures to pick the animals to the bone (a flock can clean a carcass in a few minutes).
In India, this is reportedly affecting the livelihoods of Dalit families who depended on these birds to clean the carcasses before they collected the bones to make bone meal and glue. The concern, then, lies with the loss of biodiversity (the extinction crisis) and also the potential impact on ecosystem integrity, livelihood security and public health (human and ecosystem well-being).
In Kosi Tappu the drop in breeding pairs of the White-backed Vulture means potential disaster. The reserve's ungulate population, including of the last remnant population of Asiatic Wild Water Buffalo (arna) and a large domestic livestock population would be felled by contagion if it weren't for effective scavenging.
At the Kathmandu vulture summit, everyone agreed that banning or severely restricting the use of diclofenac should be the first step. This should go hand-in-hand with a captive breeding programme for release and relocation of the Oriental White-backed Vulture, Slender-billed Vulture and Long-billed Vulture.
It is hard to tell people to save the vulture. They are unglamorous birds that people speak for only at the risk of being accused of having a taste for the bizarre. Surely they do not inspire conservation efforts like charismatic mammals. That is the cruelty of beauty. But for as long as humans have been around vultures were there to clean up, in life and in death.
Says Hem Baral of BCN: "Time is running out for the vultures, and if we are to save these magnificent jewels of our skies we must act soon. We have only months, not years."
Bird Conservation Nepal is seeking help with monitoring nesting sites and information on vulture declines. Call: 01-4439296, 01-4417805.