New paper: India’s vulture populations have stabilised but are not recovering

Extensive road transects carried out by BNHS for the eighth time since 1992 have provided the longest-term and most comprehensive information available on changes in vulture numbers in India. An update, based upon survey data collected in 2022, was published online in Bird Conservation International this week, demonstrating that populations of the drastically depleted resident vulture species have at least stabilised at their new low levels. This is in contrast to Nepal where the NSAID threat has been more effectively addressed since around 2012 and both resident species of Gyps vultures have increased consistently and significantly.

The 17,000km of road transects took place across 13 Indian states using standardised times and observers. They took place at the end of the breeding season, which maximises the chances of seeing flying vultures, and at a time when migrant species are absent.

Publication of the latest results was keenly awaited to see how effective India’s conservation measures have been. It is partially good news that the declines have stopped, but dashed any hopes that there are signs of recovery. The threat of extinction was very real until the ban on veterinary use of the NSAID diclofenac in 2006. Evidence from these surveys suggests that the ban has been partially effective. However, populations remain at very low levels, following declines of 97.9% for Long-billed Vulture and  99.8% for White-rumped Vulture since 1992, and 48% & 87% declines respectively since 2002.

BNHS team surveying in North India      Photo: Sachin Ranade, BNHS

Vibhu Prakash, recently retired from BNHS and coordinator of all eight surveys, said “These surveys are an important measure of how well the vultures are doing. Getting the permissions and experienced team together is always a challenge, but there is no better way of getting a clear picture of the status of vultures across a large swathe of India.”

John Mallord, RSPB Research Scientist explained “We had hoped to repeat the survey sooner, but COVID and other constraints meant that this was not possible, so it was a big relief to get it completed. Although the results are largely positive, it is also clear that there is much more work to do. Similar surveys in Nepal show a very different picture, with populations growing as fast as it is possible to do. The logical explanation is that the key threat of toxic NSAIDs has been addressed more effectively in Nepal, further underlining the importance of effective regulation of these killer veterinary drugs. Cattle treated with such NSAIDs are highly toxic to any vultures consuming their tissues, but because the birds usually only die days later, it’s very difficult to pinpoint.”

The paper describes how some of the transects pass close to and through numerous protected areas, where vulture numbers have held up slightly better than in the wider landscape and points out that the trends away from protected areas are likely to be less positive. Indeed, citizen science information from the ‘State of India’s Birds’ using birdwatchers’ eBird observations give a more negative picture, further highlighting this concern.

Ashwin Viswanathan, scientist of Nature Conservation Society, Bangalore comments that “because birdwatchers’ records are often away from protected areas, and include southern India which is not a traditional stronghold for vultures, this may explain the different trends. Neither survey method shows any sign of a consistent increase for any species.”

Sachin Ranade, Senior Vulture Manager for Assam BNHS vulture work, who has been an expert observer in almost all surveys, commented that “Before the declines, vultures were almost too common to count. Nowadays, however, the transects involve many hours of seeing almost no vultures, so it takes lots of concentration to ensure no vultures are missed”.

Rhys Green, Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Cambridge and involved in vulture studies in India for 20 years, commented “The absence of any sign of population recovery in India is likely to be because veterinary NSAIDs toxic to vultures have continued to be sold widely in veterinary pharmacies. This includes continuing illegal sales of diclofenac, as well as toxic drugs such as aceclofenac, ketoprofen and nimesulide whose use has remained legally approved. The recent banning of aceclofenac and ketoprofen is welcome but will take time to become effective. There is nothing to stop a new NSAID even more toxic than diclofenac being approved tomorrow. Until the pharmaceutical industry is required to provide robust data about the safety to vultures of veterinary NSAIDs before they are approved, the maintenance of viable self-sustaining captive ‘insurance’ populations of vultures, as pioneered by BNHS, will remain essential”.

Compiled by Chris Bowden, SAVE Programme Manager

Links:

Link to the new paper: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/bird-conservation-international/article/recent-trends-in-populations-of-critically-endangered-gyps-vultures-in-india/F7D6AD16C6B5482D426789912BCB9443

Link to previous 2017 paper: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/bird-conservation-international/article/recent-changes-in-populations-of-critically-endangered-gyps-vultures-in-india/668FE4AE0A18DA293CAF8870189B7DD0

And SAVE coverage of 2017 paper: https://save-vultures.org/2017/12/december-2017-asian-vulture-population-estimates-lower-than-previously-thought/

SAVE website link to Nepal vulture population trends paper: https://save-vultures.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/19-05-BCI-partial_recovery_of_critically_endangered_gyps_vulture_populations_in_nepal.pdf

CMS NSAIDs factsheet link: https://www.cms.int/raptors/en/page/non-steroidal-anti-inflammatory-drugs-and-vultures

1 Comment

  1. Bittu Sahgal on 25th January 2024 at 9:45 am

    In addition to what has been stated above, which I endorse, we know far too little about the cause and effect of the accellerating climate crisis on plant and aimal species in biogeographies across the globe. On the Indian subcontinent Gyps vultures are therefore particularly vulnerable because of the double-barrel threat of climate-triggered habitat changes, coupled with the still relatively easy availability of NSAIDs toxic to vultures (including the banned diclofenac) still being available in pharmacies for veterinary use. The BNHS, RSPB, and India’s Central and State Governments are to be lauded for bringing vultures back from the edge of extinction, against all odds, after a marathon effort over two decades. It would, however, be premature to presume that these raptors — so critical to our ‘One Health’ imperatives — are anywhere close to safe from extinction. India and the world would do well to support the BNHS by making available the long-term funds necessary (a modest two million USD per annum, as of today) to EXPAND their research, all-India monitoring and vulture breeding projects across India.

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