The key to recovery
The eventual recovery of vultures in Asia will be enhanced if it is possible to protect and retain small but key remaining vulture populations in the wild through creating Vulture Safe Zones (VSZs) where there is a very low risk of poisoning in the areas surrounding remaining breeding colonies. These sites will be vitally important, not just for the numbers they retain within a natural system, but because they are also likely to be utilised as some of the first release sites for captive reared birds. Release efforts will be focused in areas where it has been established that vultures can be protected and birds are likely to congregate. Vulture Safe Zones and Vulture Conservation Breeding Centres are complimentary approaches for conserving vultures and both are vital. Work on creating VSZs has been lead by Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN), with further efforts being undertaken in Gujarat, India.
Vulture Safe Zones - Nepal
In Nepal, initial efforts at one breeding colony close to Chitwan National Park has led to local increases in numbers of nesting birds in the three years that the project has been running, with numbers of nesting pairs increasing from 17 to 45 pairs.
This conservation effort first focuses on removing all available stocks of veterinary diclofenac from the areas surrounding the breeding colony (up to a distance of >50 km) and replacing this with the vulture safe drug meloxicam. At the site close to Chitwan over US $2,000 of meloxicam has been swapped to replace diclofenac. Ridding the environment of diclofenac is the key conservation action that will save Asia's vultures: both the advocacy programme and conservation efforts around colonies are aiming to achieve this same in-situ conservation.
The diclofenac/meloxicam swapping work is followed up with an extensive education and awareness programme on the value of vultures for the local community in regards to their ability to clean up carcasses and therefore help reduce the risk of disease and increasing numbers of feral dogs. Workshops are held with farmers, vets and pharmacists to make sure they know of the problems with diclofenac use. Interest from national and international tourists to visit and watch vultures also provides a further economic incentive for local communities to protect their vultures and ensure diclofenac is not used in the surrounding district, and viewing hides are being set up at some sites.
The "Jatayu Restaurant"
The final element of the programme is to attract vultures in to the safe area and to retain vultures already there through the provision of regular and safe food supply in the form of a "Jatayu Restaurant". Safe food has been provided by establishing a cow shelter in the villages surrounding the vulture colonies. These farms buy old cattle at the end of their working lives that are otherwise destined to be sold to cattle traders (for use as meat) or else abandoned by their owners in forest land or outside villages. In Nepal, old cattle can be purchased for around US $2 and many animals are given to the project, as it saves local people from feeding or abandoning an animal that is otherwise a burden.
The cattle are housed in purpose built cow sheds and herded to fields on community owned land in the village where they can graze. No cattle are killed and a project veterinarian ensures their welfare with regular checks and if necessary medical treatment with the notable exception of never using diclofenac. The animals die a natural death from old age and carcasses are then skinned (providing an important income to the project to pay the cattle herder and purchase more old animals) and the safe drug-free carcass is then placed out for vultures to feed upon. Flocks of over 150 vultures are now regularly seen at three in-situ conservation sites in Nepal.
The following websites and articles have published stories about the in-situ conservation work in Nepal: BBC News South Asia, BirdLife International news, Reuters press news, New Scientist Environment Support for this project in Nepal has come from the United Nations Development Programme, the UK Government Darwin Initiative and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Other funding contributors include Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), WWF Nepal Programme, Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP), Rufford Small Grants, International Trust for Nature Conservation (ITNC).
In addition, the local community has received funding from the UNDP-GEF Small Grants programme to help establish a vulture watching hide, and education and community centre to further promote vulture conservation. Increasing numbers of tourists are now visiting the site, providing further incentive to protect these vultures.
Vulture Safe Zones - Gujarat India
The development and successful trial of vulture safe zones in Nepal has been duplicated in India with work lead by BNHS and funded by the UK Government's Darwin Initiative focusing on protecting vultures in Gujarat State, in the west of India. Due to the presence of a large number of conservation organisations in Gujarat, an active network of BNHS volunteers, and the continued presence of vultures, this work was started in 2006 in order to try to retain the small populations of vultures within the State. Continued monitoring indicates that vultures are still declining in many areas, but some safer areas are to be found, particularly in and around Ahmedabad, Surat and Bhavnagar.
Gujarat is particularly important for vultures due to the presence of many cow and animal shelters (also known as Panjarapoles) that are run in the State. These sites take in many injured and abandoned cattle, particularly in times of drought, and can hold up to 10,000 cattle and buffalo. Traditionally any animals that died were placed out for vultures to feed on, and the very large numbers of livestock held meant that they were important feeding sites. These animal charities are dedicated to helping all animals, including vultures, and so they have been quick to stop the use of diclofenac due to the toxic effects of the drug on vultures. Instead, these charities are now only using meloxicam, the only NSAID that we know is of low toxicity to vultures and other scavenging birds.
The work within Gujarat has focused on the Panjarapoles, but has also set out to work with pharmacies, veterinarians and farmers to ensure that the message about diclofenac is understood. Along with detailed monitoring of remaining vulture numbers and tackling other issues that are harmful to vultures (including entanglement with kite strings during the large kite festivals in the State) work in Gujarat is taking the necessary steps to speed up the removal of diclofenac. Hopefully, the animal charities will remain important sites for vulture conservation throughout Gujarat and help numbers to recover in the future once diclofenac and other toxic drugs are eliminated from the system.