Most rapid decline in vulture populations recorded in Asia
The governments of four South Asian countries have decided to work together to save critically endangered species of vultures of the region. Representatives of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal adopted a regional declaration on May 4, under which they pledged to strengthen regional cooperation to promote vulture breeding and reintroduction programmes. Strengthening of monitoring and research in vulture population and stringent measures to remove toxic vulture-killing drugs from the environment are also included in the declaration document.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of threatened species, 10 of the world’s 23 vulture species are threatened by extinction, with the most rapid declines occurring in Asia. Major species of the region like the white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis), the Indian vulture (Gyps indicus) and the slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) have been categorised as critically endangered by IUCN. The white-rumped vulture has suffered a population decline of 99.9 per cent in just 15 years. The populations of the Indian vulture and the slender-billed vulture dropped by 97 per cent in the same period between 1992 and 2007.
As scavengers, vultures have an important ecological role. They remove carcasses of livestock and wild animals, and carrion from the environment. Considering 99 per cent of the 40 million vultures in South Asia have disappeared, tonnes of putrefying meat lying around every year may cause enormous environmental and health hazards. To address this challenge collectively, the four vulture-range countries gathered on May 3 and 4 for a symposium on developing a regional response to the conservation of South Asia’s critically endangered vulture species. The event was organised by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests of India.
As part of the declaration, the four countries decided to form a South Asia regional steering committee for vulture conservation and to remove diclofenac and other vulture-killing drugs from the vulture food chain. Diclofenac, is a non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug; its veterinary use is identified as the single-most important cause for the catastrophic decline of vulture populations across South Asia. The drug is ingested by vultures consuming carcasses of cattle treated with the drug, which causes renal failure and death in vultures. The birds feed in large groups and research has shown that just one in 760 livestock carcasses containing diclofenac is enough to cause the rate of 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 veterinary doctors and livestock owners who use it illegally. The representatives of the four countries said they will take measures like enhanced enforcement of the ban on veterinary use of diclofenac and eliminating its “leakage” from human use by urgent measures and legislation, as appropriate, against multi-dose vials of human diclofenac.
Safe zones for vultures
The South Asian countries have also decided to increase the number, size and effectiveness of national vulture safe zones, within which special efforts are made to remove all toxic veterinary drugs from the food chain of vultures. Further, representatives of the four countries said they will cooperate to create trans-boundary vulture safe zones because birds know no boundaries. The nations will “continue to develop and foster active partnerships amongst governments, research institutions, civil society, private sector and international organisations to further accelerate vulture conservation in the region,” said the regional declaration.