Bangladesh, India, Nepal & Pakistan rally to save South Asia’s Critically Endangered Vulture Species

Vulture range countries in South Asia adopt a regional declaration and action plan for transboundary conservation of endangered vulture species

The regional vulture symposium was held in Delhi on 3rd and 4th May

In a groundbreaking step towards vulture conservation in South Asia, the governments of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan adopted a Regional Declaration on the Conservation of South Asia’s Critically Endangered Vulture Species in Delhi on 4 May 2012. The four governments agreed to take stringent measures to remove toxic, “vulture killing” drugs from the environment, including diclofenac, identified as the single most important cause for the catastrophic decline of vulture populations across South Asia.

Recognising the need to scale-up conservation breeding and reintroduction programmes, the governments also agreed to create transboundary Vulture Safe Zones to conserve vulture populations in the wild. A South Asia Regional Steering Committee for Vulture Conservation has been established to coordinate and guide these measures.

The four vulture range countries adopted the declaration at the Symposium on Developing a Regional Response to the Conservation of South Asia’s Critically Endangered Vulture Species, held in Delhi on 3-4 May 2012. The symposium focussed on three vulture species that are now facing extinction in the wild: the White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis), the Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus) and the Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris). All three species have been included on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered.

According to The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, 10 of the world’s 23 vulture species are threatened with extinction, with the most rapid declines occurring in Asia. The White-rumped Vulture has suffered a population decline of more than 99.9 per cent in just 15 years. The Indian and Slender-billed vulture populations dropped by 97 per cent in the same duration from 1992 to 2007.

Adopting the declaration, the four South Asian countries pledged to develop and foster active partnerships amongst Governments, research institutions, civil society, private sector and international organizations to further accelerate vulture conservation in the region. The symposium was organised by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India, and the Central Zoo Authority of India (CZA). Coorganised by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII-Dehradun), Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS-Mumbai) and IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, the event saw the participation of some of the world’s leading vulture experts, senior government representatives from the four countires and national and international NGOs and members of the civil society.

Welcoming the development, Mr P R Sinha, Director, WII said, “The range countries in South Asia have been working on vulture conservation ever since the alarming drop of the populations was noticed. However, the realisation that one country alone would not be able to tackle such a serious and transbounday issue was a start to this process of collective action to save the various species of vultures under the threat of extinction.”

Dr Jagdish Kishwan, Additional Director General of Forests (Wildlife), MoEF, stressed on the institutionalisation of a regional network where government officials, scientists and NGOs can come together to save the vulture populations in South Asia. “There are issues and bottlenecks in the conservation of the vulture,” he said. “All the countries in the region have to work together with clearly defined role for each. International agencies can make this collaboration efective.”

Reiterating the importance to work across sectors and regionally, Ms Aban Marker Kabraji, IUCN Asia Regional Director said, “We need to work with a wide range of stakeholders, including the private sector, and at regional scale to achieve long term recovery of the declining vulture population. IUCN can create the platform for multi-stakeholder engagement at the regional scale. We hope that this symposium will lead to the endorsement of a regional declaration on vulture conservation and that it will catalyze more collaboration among the range states. We hope that we will be able to access international funding to support the critical conservation actions required in the four vulture range countries.”

Support for such a collective regional effort for a comprehensive programme on conserving vultures was pledged by Mr B S Bonal, Member Secretary, CZA. CZA has encouraged 5 zoos across the country to develop breeding programmes through financial support for the establishment of ex-situ facilities. CZA has also provided technical support to the vulture programme by organizing workshops for all stakeholders in Pinjore between 2006 and 2011. Accomplishments must be replicated at a regional scale, bringing together governments, relevant organizations and local communities. As borders do not exist in the wildlife world, so must they not divide our efforts to restore populations across boundaries, particularly between the 4 range countries of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan.”

As scavengers, vultures have an important ecological role and these population declines have serious consequences for humans and the environment. Mr Chris Bowden, Co-Chair of the IUCN Vulture Specialist Group (part of the larger IUCN Species Survival Commission) drove the message home about the consequences of a decline in vulture populations. “A single vulture would consume 3 kilograms of meat a week. If we consider the fact that nearly 99 per cent of the 40 million vultures in South Asia have disappeared, that leaves us with 10 million tonnes of putrefying meat lying around every year causing enormous environmental and health hazards,” he said.

The decline in vulture populations throughout the region has been directly attributed to the veterinary use of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac, ingested by vultures consuming carcasses of cattle that had recently been treated with the drug. Diclofenac causes renal failure and death for vultures and due to the strength of the drug and the tendency of vultures to feed in large groups.

Research has shown that just one in 760 livestock carcasses needs to contain diclofenac to cause the population decline that has been observed. Despite a manufacturing ban in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan and a ban of its sale and veterinary use in India, research shows that this drug is still affecting vulture populations in Asia. Researchers at the symposium pointed out that while the veterinary use of the drug has been banned, it is still legal for use on humans and is sold in large multi-dose vials. As a result it continues to be purchased by vets and livestock owners and used illegally for veterinary purposes.

One of the most important outcomes of the symposium was an agreement to take measures to prevent the sale of these multi-dose vials of human diclofenac. The governments also agreed to restrict the use of other veterinary drugs that are known to be toxic to vultures including ketoprofen and aceclofenac.

Experts also stressed the need for large scale awareness campaigns with the civil society and the private sector, particularly the pharmaceutical industry. “The cooperation of the pharmaceutical industry is needed to prevent the use of multi-dose vials of human diclofenac for veterinary use and to conduct further research and development on products that do not harm the vulture population. We have to understand that the social and environmental costs of the disappearance of vultures are unimaginably higher compared to any extra paisa that we may spend on manufacturing or buying drugs,” said Mr Homi R Khusrokhan, President of BNHS and member of Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE). He stressed that in order to make vulture safe zones more effective, pre-testing of carcasses meant for feeding the birds in these areas is essential. “It is also imperative that there is dissemination of information regarding these drugs and their impact on vultures to vets, pharmacies and other relevant people in the countries of the region,” he added.

While there are still many rough edges to iron out, participants in the meeting feel this is significant step towards a regional collaboration that can bear fruit. “The idea of this symposium and the steering committee is to have impacts at two levels. While the countries can now strive to look at vulture conservation from a transboundary perspective, such as creating vulture safe zones across boundaries, it will also be a collective effort in generating resources,” said Dr Scott Perkin, Head, IUCN Regional Biodiversity Conservation Programme, Asia.

According to the organisers, the steering committee is the beginning of a larger process of formulating proposals for large funds to work on vulture conservation in South Asia. They also aim highlight the issue at the Eleventh Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD COP 11) to be held in Hyderabad, India, in October 2012. 

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