Breeding Centers and “Restaurants”—an Update on the Vulture Program in India and Nepal
Read the Spanish translation: Centros de Reproducción y “Restaurantes”—una Actualización del Programa de Zopilotes en la India y Nepal
The decline of the once ubiquitous Gyps spp. vultures of India, Nepal, and Pakistan and some initial work to conserve the species has previously been presented to the AAZV.1 Some 6 years after the establishment of the first breeding center, the collaborative conservation program has the feeling of being at the end of a first phase. The successful transition to its next phase is crucial if it is to achieve its long-term goals of release of birds back to the wild.
Much has been done to eliminate the cause of the decline, the NSAID diclofenac, but the rolling year-on-year vulture decline continues. Diclofenac residues are still being identified in carcasses at carcass dumps despite the drug having been banned by law in many of the range countries.
The relative nephrotoxicity of diclofenac when compared with meloxicam in vitro has been demonstrated.2 Meloxicam appears to be safe in vultures and can be used therapeutically. However, replacement of diclofenac with meloxicam in the farming and veterinary communities has not been straightforward. In addition, ketoprofen, previously believed to be a potential alternative to diclofenac, has now been shown to be nephrotoxic to vultures.3
The author is involved with collaborative veterinary management at four breeding centers, three in India and one in Nepal. These are managed by in-country partners; the Bombay Natural History Society and National Trust for Nature Conservation respectively (a fifth center has been set up in Pakistan). Additional technical support, for both husbandry and breeding, has been provided by workers from UK zoological collections. The total number of birds of all three species (not including the 2010 breeding season) in the five centers is 283.4 This falls short of the total number of founder birds, 100 birds of each species to maintain 90% of current heterozygosity, as determined in order to maintain long-term genetic diversity.5
Many of the birds are relatively young, having been taken under license as nestlings. Breeding has now occurred in the older birds from all three species held, namely the oriental white-backed, the long-billed, and the slender-billed vultures (G. bengalensis, G. indicus, and G. tenuirostris, respectively). For this year’s breeding season, incubators were used for the first time. Several pairs had what would have been their first, and only offspring reared artificially and then went on to produce a second chick in the same season.
A major constraining factor on the project is cost, in particular when considering the number of years over which the captive-breeding program needs to run. A large proportion of these costs, supported by the UK wildlife charity the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, is $150,000 per annum to feed the vultures. Alternative sources of meat have been researched, including wildlife casualties, with the risk to the project being critically assessed. Ongoing research indicates that an ELISA test to identify diclofenac residues in meat is feasible. The benefit of this would be to give, within the limitations prescribed by local religions, alternative sources of domestic livestock meat.
Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has been found in domestic species in the range countries, often close to the breeding centers. Formal approaches to the relevant government authorities have not succeeded in getting an embargo lifted on the importation and use of a killed HPAI H5N1 vaccine. Preventive measures are therefore currently limited to biosecurity and wild bird exclusion.
In a collaborative project with local communities, Bird Conservation Nepal has established a facility loosely described as a “vulture restaurant” in a rural area. The site coincided with an extant group of vultures. A feeding area and bird hide have been set up and an active diclofenac replacement program has taken place in the locality. Old cattle are purchased and held until they die, at which point they are fed to the vultures. This can be observed from the hide and visitors pay a fee which goes back into the local community. Vulture numbers have increased as birds have moved to the area and breeding is taking place. The drawback is that there is no confinement of the birds meaning they could fly some distance and consume a carcass containing fatal amounts of diclofenac. In a recent, high-profile government-supported event in order to highlight the plight of the vultures, over 50 liters and 13,000 boluses of diclofenac were destroyed.
The effects of the vulture decline extend into the local communities and affect community health. Without the vultures to dispose of carrion there has been a concomitant rise in stray dog populations. Linked to this has been an increase in the number of cases of human rabies, with one study attributing to this effect an estimated 47,300 deaths in the period from 1992–2006.6
The year 2010 sees the project enter a second phase; one of consolidation. A core function of the work is to maintain and breed vultures in captivity so that a release-program can occur. There are a few vultures left in the wild. The threat of NSAID toxicity means they remain at risk and, based on current trends, any or all of the three species could become extinct in the wild. However, the lobbying and advocacy needed to eliminate diclofenac from the environment should now be seen as much for ecosystem health and the generations of vultures to come as for the remaining survivors of these previously ubiquitous raptors.
This is a truly collaborative project involving many agencies and individuals. Accordingly, thanks are due to colleagues at the Zoological Society of London, the Bombay Natural History Society, the National Trust for Nature Conservation (Nepal), Bird Conservation Nepal, the International Centre for Birds of Prey (UK) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Additional support has been provided by the Raptor TAG members, coordinated by Scott Tidmus.
1. Routh, A. 2006. Conservation of the Gyps vultures in India—veterinary support for an in-situ project. In: Proceedings of the Meeting of the American Association of Zoo and Wildlife Veterinarians (AAZV). September 19–24. Tampa, FL.
2. Ng, L.E., B. Halliwell, and P.W. Kim. 2006. Nephrotoxic cell death by diclofenac and meloxicam. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications. 369:873–877, DOI: 10.1016/j.bbrc.2008.02.116.
3. Naidoo, V., K. Wolter, D. Cromarty, M. Diekmann, N. Duncan, A.A. Meharg, M.A. Taggart, L. Venter, and R. Cuthbert. 2009. Toxicity of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to Gyps vultures: a new threat from ketoprofen. Biology Letters. Published online 9 December, DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2009.0818.
4. Bowden, C. 2010. Birding. ASIA. 12:121–123.
5. Johnson, J.A., M. Gilbert, M.Z. Virani, M. Asim, and D.P. Mindell. 2008. Temporal genetic analysis of the critically-endangered oriental white-backed vulture in Pakistan. Biological Conservation. DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2008.07.001
6. Markandya, A., T. Taylor, A. Longo, M. Murty, S. Murty, K. Dhavala. 2008. Counting the cost of vulture decline—an appraisal of the human health and other benefits of vultures in India. Ecological Economics. 67(2):194–204.