Ornithologists hint at slight rise in endangered vulture numbers over past two yearsGive credits to awareness campaigns, youths’ involvement in conservation and coordination among community forest stakeholders for the increase.
Those who are worried about the decline in vulture numbers in Nepal have a piece of good news.
Nepali ornithologists say the number of several endangered vulture species in the country might have increased in the past two years.
“We could not conduct a survey due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but based on the past trend we can say there might have been a slight rise in the number of white-rumped vultures in the past two years,” said Ankit Bilash Joshi, manager of the Vulture Project under the Bird Conservation Nepal.
Vultures are natural cleaners as they eat animal carcasses and prevent potential diseases, poison and bacteria from spreading. They are the environmentally beneficial scavengers that serve the natural ecosystem. However, due to misconceptions and people not understanding their ecological value, their population dropped drastically in the past, according to experts.
Of the total nine vulture species recorded in Nepal, four–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.
Joshi, however, said awareness campaigns, youths involvement and coordination among community forest stakeholders might have helped increase the bird’s population.
“The 2019 data also show a slight growth, and in between we have found more vultures shifting their nests and more people are aware of the environmental benefits of these birds,” said Joshi.
Similarly, Krishna Bhusal, a member of the vulture specialist group under the International Union for Conservation of Nature, says there is a possibility of an increase in the number of vultures in the country.
“Due to increased awareness about vulture conservation in recent years, we believe their numbers have not gone down. Also, the expansion of Jatayu [vulture] restaurants to seven different places of the country and the ban on the use of harmful painkiller diclofenac have helped vultures thrive,” said Bhusal.
Jatayu restaurants established in 2006, as a pioneer community-managed scheme for providing safe food for the birds, have now opened in Rupandehi, Dang, Kailali, Kaski and Sunsari.
To prevent the alarming decline in vulture population, the government in 2006 banned the production and use of diclofenac, a veterinary painkiller drug. Two years later, a Vulture Conservation Breeding Center was established in Chitwan National Park. Later, the government endorsed the first Vulture Conservation Action Plan for Nepal (2009-13)
However, for Joshi, Bhusal and other conservationists, the death of 67 vultures in Nawalparasi (West) in April this year, came as a huge shock.
“That was a black day for vulture conservation,” said Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary, renowned vulture conservationist who is also a coordinator of the Jatayu restaurant in Rautahat. He said the actual cause of deaths is still not known. “Due to the government’s indifference, we do not yet know the actual cause of the deaths. Maybe tests abroad would help resolve the mystery,” said Chaudhari.
There are many reasons for the deaths such as feeding on the carcasses of dogs that were probably poisoned to death.
Meanwhile, climate change, shrinking habitats, increasing use of harmful veterinary drugs by farmers and lack of food among other things have been identified as major threats to vulture conservation.
However, Chaudhari said before the establishment of the first vulture restaurant in 2005, his personal record showed there were only 72 vultures in the area [in Rautahat], but in the past 16 years, the number has jumped to 334.
“The figure is from March, and wherever we have expanded Jatayu restaurants, it has greatly helped boost the vulture numbers,” said Chaudhari.
Until two years ago, before the pandemic, the Bird Conservation Nepal had been counting vultures in May every year through transit surveys. Every year, conservationists would travel over 1,000 km by road on an open pick up truck from Kakadbhitta to Mahendranagar (East-West highway) driving the vehicle at the speed of 20 km per hour and counting vultures on the way, according to Joshi.
“The number of white-rumped vultures had decreased by 91 percent between 2002 and 2010,” said Joshi. Nearly two and a half decades ago, there were 50,000 nesting pairs of white-rumped and slender-billed vultures in Nepal, according to him.
It is estimated that in the 1980s Nepal had over one million vultures, according to Joshi. However, he estimates their numbers have come down to around 20,000.