Saving Birds of Prey: Nepal’s Vulture Comeback
- Nepal is home to five out of the nine species of vultures.
- Three species: White-rumped, Slender-billed, and Long-billed vultures have suffered a catastrophic global decline in their population.
- In Nepal, the population of the three species fell from 50,000 nesting pairs in 1990 to an estimated 500 by 2011.
- Conservation efforts began after the drastic fall in their population.
- For the first time in the world, six captive-bred White-rumped vultures have been released into the wild in Pithauli, Nepal.
If there was a bird the locals wanted to hate, it was the vulture. Considered filthy, ugly, even ‘untouchable,’ vultures do not only have a bad reputation, but are also looked upon as bad omens by the inhabitants of Pithauli, a village adjoining Chitwan National Park (CNP) in Nepal’s southern plains.
Tara Nath Lamichane, Chairperson of Pithauli's Vulture Conservation and Management Committee
We carried out special purification rites whenever we saw vultures perched on the roofs of our homes
The contempt for these species was so intense that people cut down trees used by nesting vultures to prevent them from reproducing. “We never thought of them as needing special attention,” he added.
Meanwhile, the vultures of South Asia have been facing a silent and fatal crisis. Five out of the total nine species of vultures are found in Nepal. Of that, three vulture species: White-rumped, Slender-billed, and Long-billed, suffered a catastrophic decline. In Nepal, the White-rumped and the Slender-billed vultures fell from 50,000 nesting pairs in 1990 to an estimated 500 by 2011. A national level monitoring of the White-rumped vulture population in the lowlands of Nepal has revealed a decline of more than 90 percent between 1995 and 2011.
Vulture population declined at a time when farmers in South Asia were commonly, and excessively, using a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), Diclofenac, to treat livestock for an array of ailments including fever and lameness. Cattle that died despite being treated by Diclofenac turned into toxic carcasses that vultures fed on, and consequently succumbed to acute kidney failure.
Scientists noticed and began to sound the alarm- triggering conservation efforts that resulted in the ban of the use of Diclofenac, and increased community-led awareness campaigns on the importance of scavengers for the local environment. It was in Pithauli that the first community-managed vulture feeding site, the Jatayu Restaurant, was set up in 2007. This ensured the birds of prey were protected, and had safe food to eat.
A Global First: Rewilding Vultures
On a chilly overcast morning, on 15th April, villagers from Pithauli that once wanted to get rid of these ‘beasty’ birds were gathered for something quite the opposite: To release six captive-bred female White-rumped vultures (Gyps bengalenesis) into the wild. The vultures were let out of their cages, one by one, and first flew out into an aviary at the Vulture Safe Feeding Site in Pithauli.
Narendra Babu Pradhan, Chief Executive Officer at Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN)
The release of captive-bred White-rumped vultures into the wild is happening for the first time in the world, here in Nepal
BCN intends to release more captive-bred vultures in the near future.
The released vultures are not expected to leave the aviary immediately as they need time to build strength in their wings. “It is a very long aviary. Perches are placed inside the pre-release aviary to encourage them to fly from one end to another. The movement helps them build their flight muscles, and finally move out of the temporary space and into the wild,” Toby Heath Galligan, told Onward Nepal. Galligan is a Senior Conservation Scientist at RSPB.
At the aviary, the captive-bred birds get a chance to socialise, feed, and roost with wild vultures. These activities are tracked in real-time.
The released vultures are expected to fly away, eventually, to find additional food and other breeding sites on their own. “This way, these vultures will help evaluate both Nepal’s captive breeding programme and the provisional Vulture Safe Zone,” Galligan said. The Namuna Community Forest where the aviary is located, is also home to 37 nesting wild White-rumped vultures.
A Concerted Effort:
A Vulture Conservation and Breeding Centre was established inside CNP in 2008 as a collaborative project among the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, National Trust for Nature Conservation, and BCN, with technical support from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), United Kingdom. One of the key objectives was to breed the critically endangered White-rumped vulture in captivity and release them into their wild habitats.
The mass decline of the vultures has led to the government devising various policies and programmes that promote the engagement of local communities in conservation efforts. The first Vulture Conservation Action Plan for Nepal (2009-2013) was followed by the second Vulture Conservation Action Plan for Nepal (2015-19) that is currently being implemented. There is also a Vulture Release Plan 2016-2019 focusing on the release of White-rumped vultures in captivity from the Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre. Through telemetry, the centre will gauge the prevalence of Diclofenac in wild vulture food, and test the assimilation of captive-reared vultures in the wild.
“We collected chicks from across the country to keep in the breeding center,” said Krishna Bhusal, the Vulture Conservation Programme Officer at BCN. “But we had difficulty finding vulture chicks in the wild as their number was in continuous decline.”
The Breeding Centre now has 56 adult White-rumped vultures and nine newborn chicks.
“Increasing the vulture population in and around our area will not only help in cleaning the environment and keeping us healthy, but will also contribute towards promoting tourism,” explained DB Chaudhary, Coordinator of Pithauli’s Jatayu Restaurant Management Committee.