Lifeline for vultures from breeding centre plan

Conservationists say six major breeding centres will be needed, for three species of vultures, if they are to be saved from extinction in the Indian subcontinent.

Numbers of three South Asian vulture species have plummeted since the early 1990s leading the IUCN – World Conservation Union to class them all as Critically Endangered, the highest risk status there is. If funds and government permission can be obtained, breeding centres will be established in India, Pakistan and Nepal.

Fears for the vultures’ future are detailed in a new paper, published today (October 1) in the Journal of Applied Ecology. Authors at the RSPB, Institute of Zoology (Zoological Society of London), Bombay Natural History Society, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Idaho-based Peregrine Fund are calling for a ban on the veterinary use of the drug diclofenac, which is the major cause of the declines.

Vultures are poisoned when they feed on the carcass of an animal that has been treated with the drug shortly before death. The new study shows that contamination of less than one per cent of livestock carcasses with lethal quantities of diclofenac would be enough to have caused the observed vulture declines.

Dr Rhys Green, Principal Research Biologist at the RSPB and one of the paper’s authors said: “These declines are among the most rapid recorded for wild birds. The situation is dire and captive breeding programmes are essential to buy the time necessary to remove diclofenac from the environment. “RSPB, ZSL, and the National Bird of Prey Trust are working with BNHS and national and state governments in India on captive breeding centres. We have had significant support from the UK government’s Darwin Initiative and are hoping that ministers will be willing to back new captive breeding plans as well. This is a life or death situation and it would be a monumental tragedy if these birds were to become extinct.”

Less than one per cent of the Indian population of the oriental white-backed vulture and less than three per cent of long-billed vultures remain. Numbers continue to fall by between 20 and 50 per cent each year. The rarest of the three species, the slender-billed vulture, is also declining at a similar rate.

There is no firm forecast of just how long these species will survive. However, another of the paper’s authors, Vibhu Prakash of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) said: “It is already becoming difficult to find enough birds to establish stocks for captive breeding. Hence, the time for effective action is close to running out.”

RSPB, ZSL and BNHS are appealing to the governments of India, Pakistan, Nepal and other South Asian countries in which vultures occur to ban diclofenac treatment for livestock. This is unlikely to have a significant impact on drug companies’ profits as humans use the majority of diclofenac; only a small proportion is for veterinary use.

Dr Green said: “The hunt is also on for alternative products that are effective for use in livestock but safe for vultures. Zoos around the world have helped by sharing information on anti-inflammatory drugs used safely on captive vultures. These leads are now being followed up.”

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