Mass vulture deaths show challenges in saving nature’s best clean-up crewNepal has managed to recover the population of the endangered birds from a situation of near extinction in the 1990s when their mysterious death was linked to a drug called diclofenac.
In early 2000, Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary was a full-time employee with Tiger Tops, pioneers of eco-tourism in Nepal, as a nature guide. But he would find some time to work voluntarily for some conservation organisations as well. As his interest grew in the conservation field, he himself led various biodiversity activities independently.
“From sticking posters at schools to conducting awareness programmes on biodiversity conservation were a few things I would do, of my own volition,” Chaudhary, now 46, told the Post over the phone from Kawasoti in Nawalparasi West. “I would even collect plastic bags, install dustbins at public places and dig holes for making toilets. People often laughed at me.”
Among various conservation activities, his prime interest was conservation of birds.
At one point, people would bring any injured birds found elsewhere to his home.
He would treat and release them back in nature, whenever possible, as he also had a full-time commitment.
By the same time, Chaudhary noticed a decline in vulture population around Chitwan National Park and buffer zone areas.
He started keeping records of vultures and the sightings of rare species and forward details to other conservation organisations. He had maintained a record of 72 vultures of seven species, according to him.
“Vultures were dying at an alarming rate,” said Chaudhary. “The population was fast declining. We had to do something.”
In 2005, when Richard Cuthbert, a vulture biologist with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the UK, visited Nepal for monitoring nesting sites of vultures, it was like a godsend for Chaudhary. He explained his plan on saving vultures from further declining.
It was during a jungle walk in a community forest with another Nepali ornithologist, Hem Sagar Baral, that the idea of the first community-managed Vulture Restaurant of Nepal germinated.
“He [Cuthbert] asked me what could be done to save the remaining vultures. I gave my plan in detail, from buying land and old cattle from farmers for securing food for vultures to hiring staffers to start a vulture restaurant,” Chaudhary told the Post. “Initially, he was apprehensive about the plan and its feasibility. I assured him that I would be able to make it work. I only needed technical and financial support for materialising the plan on paper.”
The plan worked—and it worked extremely well.
The number of vultures that had slumped to 72 rebounded to 334 around the restaurant area.
“The highest number of vultures recorded here stood at 334,” said Chaudhary. “This is an outstanding number from 72 recorded 15 years ago.”
The combined efforts of local communities, conservation partners and conservationists like Chaudhary have been crucial in recovering the vulture population in the country which witnessed a massive decline in the past.
But on Wednesday, something happened. As many as 67 vultures were found dead in Nawalparasi (West). It came as a shock for conservationists like Chaudhary and Baral.
“What has happened in Nawalparasi is indeed a major setback for the conservation of vultures,” said Baral, who is among the pioneer experts who led the research of vultures in the country. “It takes years of continuous and dedicated effort to breed and then rear one vulture. Here we have lost 67 in one go.”
Of the total nine species of vultures that are recorded in Nepal, four species–white-rumped vulture, slender-billed vulture, red-headed vulture and Indian vulture are listed as critically endangered. The Egyptian vulture is listed as endangered and three species, bearded vulture, cinereous vulture and himalayan griffon, are listed as near threatened.
“Vultures are long-surviving species and can live for 30-50 years,” said Baral. “We put all our efforts to save one or two vultures. Losing such a large number of vultures is devastating.”
Deaths of these vultures, which are known as nature’s most effective clean-up crew, came a day before the country celebrated International Mother Earth Day.
As vultures only eat animal carcasses, they prevent potential diseases, poison and bacteria from spreading and they have proven to provide an efficient, cost-effective and environmentally beneficial carcass disposal service to the ecosystem.
“When cattle and other animals die, vultures recycle those substances in nature and manage carcasses. Vultures as scavengers are a crucial part of the food web,” said Haribhadra Acharya, an ecologist with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. “If vultures are not there, bad odour and diseases will spread. Harmful bacteria can get released into nature, causing an epidemic in the nearby communities.”
According to Acharya, the sudden death of dozens of vultures means a serious loss to the ecosystem.
Of the 67 vultures that were found dead, 33 were white-rumped, 31 himalayan griffon, two cinereous vultures and one slender-billed vulture. They were found dead at Jitpur of Ramgram Municipality Ward 4 in Nawalparasi (West) on Wednesday.
The dead vultures found some 40 kilometres from Chaudhary’s restaurant also included one white-rumped, which was earlier rescued by Chaudhary’s team. The bird was released into nature with a tag after treatment.
“We were able to make the injured vulture healthy,” said Chaudhary. “I have given all my life and have been voluntarily working to protect vultures. It was heartbreaking to see so many birds die.”
Preliminary investigation has shown that the vultures died after feeding on the carcasses of dogs that were probably poisoned to death. The possible cause of mass deaths has been linked to the remains of two dogs that were found where the vultures were lying dead.
Mass death of vultures has once again reminded the fast disappearing population of vultures in Nepal and neighbouring countries in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“When I started researching the decline in the population of these birds, they were already dying in big numbers. During our investigation, we had no idea whether it was some specific virus or any disease that was leading to their deaths,” said Baral.
“Finally, a new study, whose findings were reported in the New York Times, revealed that it was the diclofenac which was behind such mass-scale death of vultures in South Asia.”
The Times in February 2004 reported, “A mysterious and precipitous plunge in the number of vultures in South Asia, which has pushed three species to the brink of extinction, is probably a result of inadvertent poisoning by a drug used widely in livestock to relieve fever and lameness.”
The two-year investigation, based in Pakistan, by an international team of 13 scientists had found that diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug commonly prescribed for arthritis and pain in people, caused acute kidney failure in vultures when they ate the carcasses of animals that had recently been treated with it, the Times reported.
The devastation caused by the use of diclofenac was massive on the ground.
A study co-authored by Baral, Cuthbert and other researchers, published by Cambridge University Press, revealed that three species of resident Gyps vulture were threatened with extinction in South Asia due to the contamination of domestic ungulate carcasses with the drug diclofenac. The rate of population decline was reported to be among the highest recorded for any bird species.
The study concluded that a total decline of 99.9 percent for the Oriental White-backed Vulture Gyps bengalensis was recorded in India between 1992 and 2007.
The same study, after surveys in the lowlands of Nepal between 1995 and 2001, showed a 91 percent and 96 percent decline in the white-rumped vulture and slender-billed vulture populations respectively.
“The situation was the same for Nepal, India and Pakistan,” said Baral. “Death of vultures was rampant. In 2000, I discovered 67 nests of vultures in the Koshi area. But in the next four-five years, the number came down to zero.”
To reverse the alarming decline in the vulture population, the Nepal government in 2006 banned the production and use of veterinary diclofenac. It also endorsed the first Vulture Conservation Action Plan for Nepal (2009-13).
In 2008, a Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre was established in Chitwan National Park to protect their population. Seven community-managed Vulture Safe Feeding Sites or “vulture restaurants” were established in Nawalparasi, Rupandehi, Dang, Kailali, Kaski and Sunsari districts between 2007 and 2013.
“When it was found that diclofenac was the culprit, it was banned for veterinary purposes and then its alternative had to be found. To save the vulture population in nature, wild vultures were captured and kept in captive breeding centres,” said Baral. “The objective was: if their population declined in the wilderness, they could be supplied from the breeding centres. Besides, massive awareness campaigns have continued all these years.”
Chaudhary, who has been involved in raising the vulture population, feels that there is still a lack of awareness about and sensitivity towards vulture conservation at various levels.
According to Chaudhary, that the deaths were reported two days later shows local residents as well as other stakeholders are still not sensitive towards vulture conservation.
“For two days, vultures had been lying sick and unconscious behind a college, yet no authorities or locals made any efforts to save them,” said Chaudhary. “Had we been informed earlier, we could have saved around a half of them.”