Stopping the vulture’s freefall
Vultures numbers are dropping at a shockingly fast rate across Africa and Asia, but efforts are underway to save the magnificent, if often unloved, birds
Every egg matters.Ankit Joshi, Bird Conservation Nepal
Vultures are vital to healthy ecosystems. But the remarkable raptors are declining to extinction-level lows in many Asian and African countries. Conservationists are racing against time with urgent measures, from breeding programmes to safe zones, to stop vultures disappearing altogether.
“Every egg matters,” says Ankit Joshi, Vulture Conservation Program Manager for Bird Conservation Nepal. It’s a statement that speaks to the horrific situation facing vultures around the world. Going back just a few decades, to the 1980s, few people would’ve guessed the ubiquitous birds, numbering in the tens of millions across Asia and Africa, would be facing an extinction level crisis, not least because they’re adaptable ‘survivors’, able to feed on the kind of rotting carcass ‘meals’ most animals wouldn’t be able to stomach.
But vulture populations have experienced some of the most unprecedented, rapid declines seen by any species across the natural world, dropping by 90-99 per cent throughout Asia in just over a decade, with dramatic losses also in many African countries. The world has 23 vulture species. In Asia and Africa, over half the resident vulture species are now listed as Critically Endangered. India alone is estimated to have had more than 40 million vultures in the 1980s, which plummeted by more than 97 per cent in the following decade, including the loss of 99.9 per cent of the country’s main species, white-rumped vultures.
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Researchers in Pakistan first figured out the source of the problem in 2003, confirmed by teams in Indian and Nepal the following year: diclofenac, a cheap, effective painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug used by vets and farmers to treat cattle. Previously only used for treating people, the drug was ‘repurposed’ for veterinary use in the early 1990s. But the toxic drug was found to be fatal to vultures who feed on the animal carcasses.
The impact was catastrophic. Nepal had an estimated 1.6 million vultures prior to the drug’s arrival. Diclofenac drove 50 per cent declines per year for over a decade, the numbers plummeting to less than 20,000 by 2007’s low point.
More than a million species of animal and plant currently face the threat of extinction. But well-loved rhinos, tigers, elephants and other charismatic animals benefit from the international spotlight. Even in the world of birds, ‘beautiful’ species – hornbills, puffins, macaws… – are more likely to get people rallying around, whereas vultures are largely under-appreciated. They’ve had negatives piled on them, the term ‘vulture’ used to describe capitalists who prey on struggling businesses or other people who swoop down on bad situations, the birds also thought of as ugly or associated with misfortune or death.
“Vultures are often seen as dirty and scary birds in Nepalese society,” says Joshi. “There’s a superstition that if a vulture sits on the roof of your house, it will create a bad accident. They’re chased away.”
Vultures are scavengers that perform a vital clean-up role, though, helping prevent the spread of diseases to other animals and people. Their stomach acid is exceptionally corrosive, allowing them to digest carcasses infected with toxins and bacteria that would be lethal to other creatures and to take those bacteria out of the environment. Without them, there would be more rotting meat, more flies, more vermin, and more feral dogs, which means more rabies.
India, Nepal and Pakistan banned veterinary use of diclofenac in 2006, their governments convinced to take action by the economic, environmental and human health costs of losing vultures, as well as scientists’ successful identification of at least one safe alternative: meloxicam. But diclofenac continued to be used legally in many countries and illegally by some vets and farmers in countries where it had been banned, including India and Nepal.
Desperate times led conservationists to set up breed-and-release programmes across Asia. In Nepal, the Vulture Conservation and Breeding Centre was established in 2008 in Chitwan National Park, with around 60 white-rumped vulture chicks brought in from nesting colonies across Nepal. The programme’s been successful; 18 white-rumped vulture chicks have hatched and been released back into the wild. “The breeding of vultures is a delicate process,” explains Joshi. “Vultures are kept in aviaries under strictly controlled conditions. We maintain bio-security, ensuring their food is safe and free of harmful NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and other chemical contaminations. As in the wild, only one egg is normally laid. But not all breeding pairs produce eggs and not all eggs hatch into chicks.”
Without getting diclofenac out of the picture, any captively bred birds face the same risk of death in the wild, though, and declines are likely to continue. But there’s hope here, too, from Nepal, with the announcement this year of the first ever Vulture Safe Zone (VSZ). A VSZ is an allocated area around one or more wild vulture nesting colonies, large enough to cover the birds’ general foraging range, where diclofenac has been proven to no longer be in use.
The Gandaki-Lumbini Vulture Safe Zone encompasses 7,500 km2 in south-west Nepal. Since 2009, a provisional safe zone (pVSZ) has been in place, with conservationists, scientists, vets and communities working on measures to protect the birds, including: removing diclofenac and monitoring other harmful NSAIDs; identifying and promoting the use of safe alternative drugs; undercover investigations of drugs on sale for veterinary use; establishing safe feeding sites; collecting and testing hundreds of cow carcasses. Vultures were also fitted with GPS tags to track their movements, so that, if they died, their corpses could be tested for diclofenac.
The Technical Advisory Committee for SAVE recently declared Gandaki-Lumbini the first provisional Vulture Safe Zone to meet the requirements and granted it full VSZ status, after two years of monitoring found no veterinary diclofenac being used and no vultures had died of diclofenac poisoning for at least five years.
Now in a Recovery Phase, Nepal is bucking the global trend with a steady recovery of vultures over the past five years in areas where NSAIDs are under control. The recovering populations of two Critically Endangered species – white-rumped and slender-billed vultures – in Nepal has been directly linked to the reduction of diclofenac in VSZs. With proof of concept now in place, the tactics can be extended to other provisional safe zones, with aims to certify more in Nepal and other countries in Asia and Africa.
Concerns remain about other toxic NSAIDs being used in some districts of Nepal, as well as other threats to vultures, such as electric power lines, habitat degradation and poison baits, all issues that are likely to stop vultures returning to pre-decline numbers in the country. But Nepal is seen as a ray of light for vultures. Bangladesh, too, has been taking positive steps, including banning ketoprofen, another toxic NSAID, in 2021.
India’s vulture population is thought to be stabilising, though it’s a mixed picture, with major declines in some areas and possible signs of recovery in others. In the last two years, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) has successfully released 18 white-rumped vultures in West Bengal and Haryana, the captive-bred birds the first to be released into the wild since conservation efforts began in India around two decades ago.
But the use of toxic drugs in India, including illegal use of diclofenac, continues to kill vultures, and the global situation for the birds remains extremely concerning. “The outlook is grim,” says Chris Bowden, Globally Threatened Species Officer at RSPB & Programme Manager for Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction] (SAVE). “We’ve got serious declines happening. The immediate priority is getting toxic NSAIDs under control, specifically aceclofenac, nimesulide and ketoprofen. Regulating them is quite straightforward – we’ve got safe alternatives: meloxicam and tolfenamic acid. And the fact the VSZ concept worked and recoveries are happening in Nepal reinforces that we’re on the right track. We need to do more of that.”
Africa’s vulture situation hasn’t been as dire as Asia’s. But diclofenac use is rising across the continent, with other complex issues also causing vulture deaths. “Africa’s starting to catch up with Asia in how grave the situation is, but due to different threats,” explains Bowden. “Poisons are the primary reason for the birds’ deaths. The top reason, surprisingly, is what we call ‘belief-based use’, people believing vulture parts have special properties – a massive issue in West Africa and elsewhere, including Nigeria and Guinea-Bissau. You also have poisoned baits, with people trying to poison problem carnivores, like dogs, lions and jackals, and accidentally killing vultures. There’s also ‘sentinel poaching’, where elephant poachers have realised that circling vultures draw attention to where they’ve been poaching, so they poison vultures to prevent that, especially in South Africa. Power infrastructure issues, especially electrocution, are also causing deaths.”
One organisation working to help vultures in South Africa is Vulpro, who collect injured vultures from across the country for veterinary treatment and rehabilitation. Since 2011, they’ve also been running a conservation breeding programme in South Africa’s North West Province, which now houses Cape vultures, African white-backed vultures, lappet-faced vultures, and white-headed vultures. So far, they’ve released over 65 captive bred birds, mainly Cape vultures. “Vultures only lay one egg per year and are slow breeders – they only start breeding from seven years and up,” says Kerri Wolter, CEO of Vulpro.
“Vultures are brilliant parents and they’re devoted to nest-building, incubation and raising their chick. But it takes a few years to become good parents, as it’s a learnt skill. The female lays one egg and survival from egg to adult is estimated at just five per cent. But we’ve recorded a survival success rate of 50 per cent from fledgling to two years of age. Because survival rates from egg to adult are extremely low, every individual counts. Every individual released is important to safeguard the population and prevent further declines.”
Vultures are brilliant parents and they’re devoted to nest-building, incubation and raising their chick.Kerri Wolter, Vulpro
Even birds that are unable to be released can help restore wild populations. “Vultures are the fastest declining bird species in the world, so we need to save the survivors, so they can make a contribution to their species’ survival, even if they can’t be released,” explains Wolter. “They can contribute through breeding programmes and the release of their offspring.”
But the future of vultures in South Africa, as elsewhere, is far from secure, with the birds facing many man-made threats. “I’m extremely concerned, as we’re seeing more and more harvesting of vultures for food and harvesting their heads, feed and organs for muti (traditional belief-based practice),” says Wolter. “I believe, along with power lines that are killing vultures, the harvesting will lead to further catastrophic losses. Unless we can rectify the dangers that electrical infrastructure brings to vultures and the many other issues they face, we’ll never win this fight to preserve and protect these magnificent, powerful and important birds.”
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What’s so good about this?
Vultures have a bad reputation. Even naturalist Charles Darwin described the scavengers as “disgusting”. But the world is better off with their ecosystem service. To support the work to protect them, visit Bird Conservation Nepal, Vulpro, Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) and Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).
Meet the writer
Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist who’s been travelling the world for 20 years reporting stories and photographing wildlife, people and places for international publications including The Guardian, BBC, The Sunday Times, New Internationalist, Wanderlust, British Journal of Photography and Digital Camera. He covers subjects ranging from wildlife and conservation to human trafficking. Graeme is also the founder of the award-winning international wildlife conservation initiative, newbig5.com. His first book, The New Big 5: A Global Photography Project For Endangered Wildlife features essays by Jane Goodall, Paula Kahumbu (Wildlife Direct), Wes Sechrest (Re:wild) and more. You can follow his work at graeme-green.com and on Instagram @graeme.green.