Nepal scripts success in conservation of White-rumped vultures

By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi

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After a massive decline in vulture numbers, conservation breeding programme started in Nepal in 2002 to supplement the wild population. As part of the programme, which involves catching, breeding and releasing vultures back into the wild, the birds are also fitted with telemetry tags for effective monitoring, as they sometimes fly over long distances and enter India.

Image by Krishna Bhusal

“The vultures released in Nepal often enter India. They commonly move in the Terai region of both the countries,” said Krishna Pd Bhusal, vulture conservation programme manager, Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN).

While most released birds (White-rumped vultures) tend to fly within six km from their released zones, at least two to three birds have made long flights this year and entered India (the state of Uttar Pradesh), where they were rescued by the forest department in a weak condition. Others, which did not cross over to India, also made long flights.

Image by Krishna Bhusal

“A particular bird, C5, was released from a site near the Chitwan National Park in Nepal in October 2019. Since April this year, it has been wandering widely, often spending extended time in India. It was rescued in Balrampur area (Uttar Pradesh) in a weak condition possibly due to its long journey. Similarly, another bird was rescued and released back from Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh,” Bhusal pointed out.

Up till now, the released birds have tended to remain local, only travelling a maximum of six km from their release and feeding sites. However, as this year’s particularly bad winter has come to an end, some of the vultures have started undertaking movements not previously seen before. Nine birds have undertaken journeys of over 20 km, with the furthest-ranging bird travelling 193 km.

Image by Krishna Bhusal

Conserving vultures. After a decline in vulture population, BCN started monitoring vulture species throughout Nepal using major roads as a series of transects, along which the birds were counted. The decline occurred as a result of accidental poisoning by diclofenac.

“Nepal releases captive vultures, along with wild birds. Each bird is fitted with telemetry tag to monitor their movements. It has enabled us to confirm that vulture safe zones are proving to be safe, being free from diclofenac and other toxic Non-Steroid Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs). In 2017, 2018 and 2019, we celebrated our conservation breeding success by releasing 16 captive reared and 15 captive bred critically endangered White-rumped vultures, thus becoming the first country to complete the cycle of catching, breeding and releasing vultures back into the wild,” said Bhusal.Vulture s

afe zones are areas surrounding one or more wild vulture nesting colonies, and are completely free from diclofenac use. The released adults were 10 to 12 years and the sub-adults were about two years.

The movement and survival of both released as well as wild vultures have been monitored with the wild birds ranging over 200 km from the release site, except one which travelled about 1,100 km to the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India. “Their continued survival tells us that the food they are eating is safe,” the conservationist said.

Monitoring of vulture species through road transect methods in the lowland areas of Nepal revealed a decline of 91% for White-rumped vultures and 96% for Slender-billed vultures between 1995 and 2011. Now, there is an estimated population of 2,000 for White-rumped vultures in Nepal. The captive releases easily assimilate with the wild population, but may face competition while feeding, as wilds are mostly dominating.

Involving communities

Nepal started working with local communities to establish vulture safe zones in 2009. Diclofenac-free districts were declared in 74 out of 77 districts, which is more than 98% of Nepal’s area. These are further verified through declaration certificates and monitoring reports.

BCN also established the world’s first community-managed vulture safe feeding site (vulture restaurant) in 2006 in Nawalparasi district and similar efforts have been replicated at six other sites. These restaurants collect old and unproductive cows from nearby villages and keep them for at least seven days to ensure they are diclofenac-free. These are then fed to vultures after their natural death. “This links biodiversity conservation with income generating livelihood. The communities around vulture restaurants have developed a clear and strategic plan to conserve vultures by implementing sustainable living practices. It shows that people can develop and thrive while conserving and protecting the environment that sustains them,” Bhusal explained.

After two years, there has been no evidence of any tagged bird succumbing to diclofenac poisoning. This is important, as it enables experts to confirm that vulture safe zones are proving to be non-dangerous for the birds. With time, this will allow conservationists to declare these areas as genuine safe zones for vultures.

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