The vulture population in Pakistan has steeply declined over the last 20 years, and accelerated efforts are now underway to save these large, magnificent birds from the many insidious threats they’ve been facing.
While globally vultures fall prey to many threats – poisoning for the traditional medicine trade or by poachers, agricultural poisoning through the illegal use of poisons, electrocution and collision with the ever-expanding energy network – in Pakistan they have been rapidly vanishing due to the use of a pain-killer called diclofenac, normally administered to livestock.
But with the launch of a new vulture conservation project by IUCN and Baanhn Beli, a local organization in Pakistan’s Sindh province, hopes to save the endangered raptors have rekindled in Sindh’s southern-most district of Tharparkar – an area now considered the core habitat for the remaining vulture population.
Despite a ban since 2006 on the production and use of veterinary medicines containing diclofenac, the unauthorized use of the drug has continued indiscriminately, posing a major threat to this remarkable species. Vultures have a unique role in the ecosystem: they serve as scavenger birds which rid the landscape of dead or rotting carcasses.
Because of the sudden and drastic population decline, sightings of large groups of vultures have been rare in the past two decades. Last September, Nadeem Mirbahar, IUCN vulture expert and project manager, got lucky. He came across more than 63 vultures on his way to Islamkot and Mithi, in Tharparkar, where the IUCN-Baanhn Beli Vulture project has recently kicked off.
“It was a rare sight to see a committee of vultures in three different locations,” narrates Mirhabar. “It was really exciting to find so many vultures at a time; I felt extremely fortunate when I was able to capture these majestic wild birds through the lens of my camera.”
Such scenes are rarely found and professional photographers wait months for similar events to happen. “It took me about four hours to document it, and I was also able to shoot some good video clips,” he recounts.
Assisting Nadeem was IUCN’s driver, Pervez, who helped him remain camouflaged during the photo session. The species they spotted were: oriental white-backed, long-billed, red-headed, Egyptian and Eurasian griffon vultures. These species are said to have suffered around 97% decline, and one of them, the oriental white-backed vulture, has already declined by 99.9% across the Indian Subcontinent over a period of just 15 years.
In order to save vultures in range countries, an Asia Regional Steering Committee on Vultures was constituted by IUCN back in 2012, and additionally, the Ministry of Climate Change in Pakistan constituted a ‘National Vulture Recovery Committee’ the same year to improve coordination nationally to protect and conserve vultures.
IUCN and Baanhn Beli are now fast-tracking the vulture conservation process by developing a National Vulture Conservation Strategy as part of a new project which is being funded by the USAID Small Grants and the Ambassador’s Fund Program, and supported by Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change, in Nagarparkar, Tharparkar, Sindh.