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Vulture Recovery Plan

A vulture in an aviary

Vultures to be bred in captivity

by Kay McMahon
New Delhi, 17 February 2004

Captive breeding plans are now essential to prevent the total extinction of three species of South Asian vultures. Wildlife experts attending a Vulture Recovery Workshop in northern India this week warned that immediate action is needed to save these birds, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists as Critically Endangered, their highest category of endangerment.

Mystery deaths among Indian white-backed vultures, long-billed vultures and slender-billed vultures has cut their numbers by more than 97% in India in twelve years. In Pakistan numbers fell by 92% in five years. And the rate of decline is increasing.

Vultures perform an essential scavenging function in South Asia. Without them, the whole ecology of the region is being affected. The lack of vultures has led to a surge in the numbers of feral dogs. As a result, rabies cases and fatal attacks by dog packs on people are also on the increase. Dr Andrew Cunningham of the Zoological Society of London, who attended the workshop, estimated that packs can include as many as 1,000 dogs.

In February 2003 the RSPB, the Zoological Society of London and the Bombay Natural History Society set up a Vulture Care Centre at Pinjore in the foothills of the Himalayas to nurse sick birds and to investigate the cause of the decline. At first an infectious disease was thought to be the cause of the birds’ death. Now new research from a similar facility in Pakistan indicates that an anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac is the killer. Diclofenac, being cheap and effective, is commonly used to treat livestock.

Cows are not widely eaten in India because of their sacred status to the majority Hindu population. After they die, tanners remove their hides and the remains are taken to a carcass dump, where vultures and other scavengers strip the bones of their flesh. Many of the cows have been treated with diclofenac, with disastrous results for the vultures. Dr Cunningham said, “Where you used to see tens of thousands of vultures at a carcass dump, now you might see only half a dozen.”

Dogs are now moving in to take advantage of this large food source.

Although the Centre at Pinjore was initially set up to treat sick vultures and return them to the wild, it will now be expanded to include a captive breeding programme. The Centre currently has 23 birds of the three different species. But it will need at least 75 pairs of each species to achieve a sustainable breeding population, which could take 30 years or more.

There are fears that other countries may also be affected. Dr Cunningham flew to Nepal today to investigate vulture deaths there.

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