Researchers report halt in rapid decline in numbers of vultures in India, Nepal


Researchers have reported a halt in the rapid decline in the numbers of vultures in India and Nepal, with the latest surveys showing that the numbers of the three critically endangered species had remained stable in the last couple of years.

Populations of the three Asian vulture species -- Oriental White-backed Vulture, Long-billed Vulture and Slender-billed Vulture, have declined by more than 99% in South Asia since the early 1990s, according to a press release from the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).
This was due to the use of veterinary drug diclofenac. The drug had lethal effects on vultures that fed on the carcasses of cattle and buffaloes that had been treated with the drug shortly before they died. 
This prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to classify their status as “critically endangered”.
The governments of India and Nepal subsequently banned the veterinary use of the painkiller diclofenac in 2006. This initiative was essential for protecting the region’s vultures. Now the effectiveness of this ban at reversing the vulture declines is slowly being observed.
Prior to the ban on veterinary diclofenac the vulture population was decreasing at a rate of up to 40% a year, the release said.
Scientists from BNHS and the United Kingdom-based Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB), along with the forest departments of various states of India, have been successfully working on vulture breeding, advocacy and field research such as carcass sampling for nearly a decade now. 
Since 2011, their efforts have been carried out under the consortium Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), launched to help coordinate research, advocacy and implementation of the actions needed to prevent these birds from disappearing forever. 
The second annual SAVE meeting was recently held in Kathmandu, which was attended by representatives from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
"After years of relentless efforts to save the vultures in South Asia, there is encouraging news. According to a new research paper published in the science journal – PLoS ONE – there are first signs of recovery for Asia’s critically endangered vultures," the release said.
"Recent surveys show that vulture numbers have stabilized across India and Nepal. Thus, the legendary Jatayu from India’s ancient history seems ready to once again soar over the skies of South Asia," it said.
The study, published on November 7, has reported the results of long-term monitoring of vulture numbers across India and Nepal. 
"The latest surveys show that in India and Nepal the numbers of the three critically endangered vulture species have remained stable in the last couple of years," it said.
Recent surveys for vultures were undertaken across more than 15,000 km of roads in western, central and eastern states of India and across 1,000 km of roads in the lowland regions of Nepal, following the same routes and methodologies of earlier surveys in both countries. 
Surveys were undertaken by BNHS in India and Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) in the lowland regions of Nepal. 
"However, it should be noted that while the stabilization in vulture numbers is encouraging, only a small number of the birds remain and they are still extremely vulnerable," it said.
Dr Vibhu Prakash, the lead author of the study and Deputy Director, BNHS said, “The stabilization of vulture numbers across India for all the three critically endangered species is the first sign that the government’s ban on veterinary diclofenac is having its desired impact. Continued efforts are still required to protect the remaining small populations, including stopping the illegal use of human diclofenac in the veterinary sector.”
Co-author of the study, Dr Richard Cuthbert from RSPB said, “The stabilisation in numbers of these three critically endangered vulture species in India and Nepal is really encouraging as previously populations were nearly halving in number every year. A lot of hard work still remains to ensure that the small surviving populations can now begin to recover across South Asia and other toxic veterinary drugs do not cause similar impacts like diclofenac.”


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