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South Asia Vulture Recovery Programme


In South Asia, cattle that die in the fields are left as food for vultures, which pick the carcasses clean. The bones are collected later and used for the production of fertiliser. Due to the widespread use of the veterinary drug diclofenac however, three species of Gyps vultures, once very common across South Asia, now face extinction. The painkiller is used to treat cattle throughout the subcontinent. Studies have been found that vultures eating tissue containing diclofenac die of visceral gout, an avian disease that causes kidney failure brought on by the build-up of uric acid, within 48 hours. Although the manufacture of veterinary diclofenac has now been banned in India, Nepal and Pakistan, it is still widely available - also in the human form of the drug. Wild vultures are still exposed to it and the decline continues at about 50% per year. Only a few thousand of these vultures remain, compared to the millions once seen in the region. The disappearance of vultures impacts local communities, too - carcasses lie to rot, causing public health risks, but also a decline in the small local fertiliser production, because of a lack of usable bones.

About the applicant

The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), together with local partners in South Asia, have started so-called Vulture Conservation Breeding Centres in Nepal and India. Wild vultures are caught and moved to these centres, which provide a safe environment for the birds. The centres act as founder populations for new generations, which can be reintroduced into the wild once the environment is safe. There are now three of these breeding centres in India, holding over 200 vultures, and one in Nepal holding 40 Oriental White Backed Vultures.

About the application (2010)

Because the bird population in the breeding centres has increased and the breeding programme is successful, there are plans to establish up to six more vulture centres in the region. Each will have around 25 breeding pairs from each of the three different vulture species. In order to make this possible, staff has to be trained and a new, stronger and longer-term training programme has to be developed. ZSL applied for funds to send a vet to India after he/she received training in ZSL London Zoo. In India, the intern would be based in the Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre in Pinjore and travel from there to the other centres to train all staff. The Nepalese staff would visit India to receive the training.

Intended results

If successful, there could be over 1,000 vultures in the six breeding centres. This should produce enough offspring to reintroduce the first new populations into the wild in 2013. The project aims to achieve this through staff training, which would give local staff the ability to train others in the future.

Actual results

In India, the intern worked at all three breeding centres to train staff and conduct research. Additionally, though not originally planned, the intern spent four weeks in the breeding centre in Chitwan, Nepal, to give on-the-spot training to the Nepalese staff. The veterinary intern developed new skills and a considerable knowledge of vulture biology and conservation. She has shared her knowledge with the staff of the breeding centres and will use it in other projects in the future. The intern also improved communications between the breeding centres in India and Nepal. The first new populations are set to be reintroduced into the wild in 2013, and prospects look very positive so far. For more information see the ZSL website on vultures and the RSPB website on the (new) SAVE-initiative.

Photo: RSPB