Will captive-bred vultures survive in the wild?
By Bhimsen Thapaliya
Since the early Nineties, Nepal’s White-rumped Vultures (gyps bengalensis) started dying and later witnessed critical population decline. Orthinologists feared that these large fliers were heading towards extinction. The population decimation of this vulture species was put to over 98 per cent. Similarly, Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) and Long-billed Vulture (Gyps indicus) also saw serious trend of mortality. As the initial studies could not determine the cause of vulture deaths, this caused a wider concerns in the scientific community in the country and abroad.
Deaths of these vultures were not limited in Nepal alone but spread in India and Pakistan. Later, the specimen of dead vultures were collected and sent for scientific lab analysis in UK. It was found that Diclofenac, a veterinary drug widely used to treat cattle in Nepal and India was found to be behind the massive deaths of vultures. Residues of this drug were present in the specimen of the dead vultures. The chemical drug led to a condition known as visceral gout and caused kidney failure of the birds. The chalk white residues of the chemical were found in the internal organs of the dead vultures.
Dead cattle are generally left rotting in the open in many places in India and Nepal. Similarly, carcasses of dogs, jackals, cats and other animals also lie in the similar state. Vultures scavenge and feed on theses carcasses. The old cattle treated with Diclofenac contained residues of the drug in them and had poisoning effect on the vultures feeding on them. Vultures are sometimes dismissed as dirty birds feeding on carrion, but actually they are the natural agent of keeping our environment clean. They not only rid the surroundings of the foul smell spreading from the rotting cattle carcasses, but also help check the outbreak of dangerous diseases. Conservationists highly regard the role of vultures in cleaning up the environment. In Hindu scriptures, the bird is called Jatayu, acting as the flying vehicle of Lord Visnu.
Potential extinction of a vulture species can be an irreparable loss to the nature’s genetic wealth in addition to the problems that may arise in our environment, says Dr. Hem Sagar Baral, noted bird scientist of Nepal. So, it is important to save the critically endangered birds from the point of no return. An international vulture conference held at Godavari of Nepal in 2006 had recommended to put a ban on the veterinary use of Diclofenac. Consequently, heeding the call of the scientific community, the government imposed a ban on the drug and introduced Meloxicam as its safe alternative.
To prevent the most endangered of the species from dying out, White-rumped vultures were put in a captive breeding centre opened within Chitwan National Park in 2008. This is the collaboration of the government’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, National Trust for Nature Conservation, BCN, the Zoological Society of London and Royal Society for Protecion of Birds (RSPB).
Over 50 vultures were being raised in the captive care. The idea is to keep the birds safe from the exposure to the poisoned food on which they normally feed. The ultimate goal is to raise viable population in captivity and release them in the wild to restore the lost population in the wild.
The challenge here is whether the birds can cope and survive in the competitive environment in the wild. We also have to make sure that the environment is free from the threats of chemicals like Diclofenac as it is heard that the drug is being illegally used because it is cheaper than Meloxicam. The birds do not limit themselves within the political boundary and they may be flying and foraging as far as Pakistan and India. Therefore, it is necessary that the feeding environment is safe across the sub-continent where the birds travel and feed.
The first batch of captive bred White-rumped vultures were released at Pithauli of Nawalparasi district in late 2017. The birds were taken to Nawalparasi from Chitwan captive breeding centre and kept in an aviary for months for their acclimatisation. A clean feeding centre was arranged for the birds when they came out of the cage for the first time to lead their life in the open.
The newly released birds joined their wild counterparts to feed on the readied carcasses but were reported to have experienced some difficulty in flying. But that is regarded as normal because vultures usually overeat and face flying problem. Nawalparasi had already made headlines for its ‘vulture restaurants’ designed to supply chemical free carcasses of cattle. These feeding centres bought old cattle from the farmers and took care of them until they died. The animals were kept safe from chemical contamination which posed threats to the birds.
In September 2018 following consignment of 12 captive bred vultures were released at the same location of Nawalparasi. According to Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN), this batch included the eight birds actually hatched within the vulture conservation and breeding center at Kasara of Chitwan National Park.
The captive bred vultures were fitted with radio devices so that their activities could be monitored via satellite telemetry. “The monitoring of the satellite-tagged birds is an important way to understand how well the birds are surviving, and to assess the safety of the “Vulture Safe Zone” said a BCN official Ishana Thapa. “If these and the previously tagged birds all survive then this is a further sign that the vulture conservation efforts are working well.”
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