Nepal’s vultures: Between existence and extinction

69 vultures were found dead in Nawalparasi last month.

On the grounds of a college campus in Nawalparasi, the great brown birds lay as if they were taking part in some ritual. The vultures were all lying in almost concentric circles around an animal carcass.

The 69 vultures were all dead: 35 White-rumped Vultures, 31 Himalayan Griffons, two Cinereous and one Slender-billed Vulture. Of the four species, two were on the IUCN list of critically endangered birds.

The death of the vultures in Nawalparasi on 20 April is a huge setback to Nepal’s successful effort to protect the birds from extinction after they started dying mysteriously in the 1990s.

Nepal is a role model for vulture conservation internationally with local communities and nature groups here saving the birds from near extinction.

The White-rumped, Long-billed and Slender-billed Vultures declined by more than 99% in India and Pakistan.

In Nepal, there was a 96% decline in the Slender-billed Vulture population between 1995 and 2001, and the number of White-rumped Vultures had gone down by 91%.

Of the nine species of vultures found in Nepal, four are critically endangered (the Long-billed, White-rumped, Slender-billed and Golden Vultures) according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). The Himalayan Griffon, Hadfor and Cinereous Vultures are also on the near-endangered status.

In 2003, scientists discovered that an analgesic called Diclofenac used to treat sick livestock was causing the decline. The residue of the steroid in the carcasses of livestock caused kidney failure in vultures, but not other scavengers. Studies have shown that just 30ml of Diclofenac can kill as many as 800 vultures.

The total number of vultures across Nepal declined from 1.6 million in the 1980s to less than 20,000 today. Moreover, only 50-75 Slender-billed Vultures are remaining in Nepal, and half the remaining 2,000 White-rumped Vultures are expected to disappear in the next ten years.

In 2006, South Asian countries including Nepal banned Diclofenac, and Nawalparasi district saw the opening of several ‘vulture restaurants’ that serve safe meat for vultures to feed on. Since then, Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) has set up seven more such feeding centres in Rupandehi, Dang, Kailali, Kaski and Sunsari districts across the Tarai and foothills.

The ‘raptor restaurants’ are managed locally, aging livestock are reared and upon their natural death the uncontaminated meat is fed to the birds. The effort saw a significant revival of the vulture population in Nepal.

Investigations are continuing into the deaths of the 69 vultures last month at Palhi Multiple Campus in Ramgram Municipality of West Nawalparasi. The National Forensic Science Laboratory in Kathmandu is still trying to determine the type of poison used to kill the street dogs on which the vultures fed.

"Once we get the test results back from the laboratory, we will know which pesticide was used to kill the dogs and how strong it was,” says Shankar Prasad Gupta, Division Forest Officer of West Nawalparasi. “We will then proceed to stop such use in future.”

Nepal’s ornithologists and bird conservationists, who had worked so hard to save vultures are still in a state of shock.

“It is a tremendous loss for so many of the endangered vultures to be killed in one place at one time,” says Ankit Bilas Joshi of the National Bird Conservation Association. He says that despite the Diclofenac ban, other non-steroidal drugs toxic to vultures and eagles are still being used to treat livestock.

Vultures get a bad rap, and are culturally considered repulsive for feeding on carcasses, which has added to the challenge in their conservation. But this negative perception does a disservice to their contribution to scavenging, in balancing the ecosystem and the food chain.

By consuming carrion, raptors reduce the spread of disease among humans and cattle alike. When vultures nearly became extinct in the Subcontinent animal carcasses lay rotting in the fields and jungles, spreading pathogens.

But the work must go on, and Nepal is developing the world’s first vulture sanctuary, stretching over 30,000sq km. Unlike other protected areas, it will not have a defined perimeter, but it will be free of Diclofenac and other chemicals.

In 2008, the Nepal government also set up a vulture conservation and breeding centre in Kasara in the Chitwan National Park. A ‘Vulture Conservation Action Plan 2009-2013’ has been approved and implemented followed by a second action plan 2015-2019. Under the campaign, 74 districts (except Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur) have been declared Diclofenac free.

Collectively, these strong local and national conservation efforts had helped to improve food availability and habitat improvement leading to the vulture population either stabilising or rising in numbers. But experts say Nepal alone cannot rescue the birds from extinction.

“Vultures fly long distances and because of their migratory nature, we need coordinated international conservation effort to protect these endangered species from perishing,” says ornithologist Krishna Bhusal, citing the example of a vulture with a geo-locator which last year flew from Nepal across north India to Kashmir.

In the past four years, at least 31 vultures tagged with satellite tracking devices have been released to study their movements. An additional 30 wild vultures fitted with satellite trackers have been found to roam an area of 25,000 sq km in the Tarai and the foothills of the Himalaya.

Vultures mate for life, they nest and rear their chicks together. However, of the nine species found in Nepal, only six build nests on trees, while the Himalayan Griffon, Hadfor and Egyptian Vultures build theirs on cliffs.