Blog by Dr Toby Galligan, Formerly Senior Conservation Scientists, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.

Nepal is set to have the world’s first Vulture Safe Zone. Presently, the RSPB and Bird Conservation Nepal, our BirdLife partner in Nepal, are tracking dozens of wild and captive-released White-rumped Vultures Gyps bengalensis in the country’s provisional Vulture Safe Zone (pVSZ).  Fitted with satellite transmitters, these vultures will show just how safe the pVSZ really is.  In fact, it is the only way to be certain that we have stopped the major threats – that is, diclofenac and other vulture-toxic NSAIDs – to vultures.  Considering white-rumps are Critically Endangered, this might sound like risky business, but we are confident that Nepal’s pVSZ will prove to be a true Vulture Safe Zone. 

In a recent publication in Bird Conservation International, we present the data that gives us our confidence, namely: a decrease in sales of diclofenac in veterinary pharmacies; an increase in sales in meloxicam (the vulture-safe alternative to diclofenac); and an increase in White-rumps and Slender-billed Vultures Gyps tenuirostris

Not long after the catastrophic declines in vulture populations began in Nepal, we began monitoring vulture species throughout Nepal.  We use the country’s major roads as a series of transects on which we count vultures.  We analysed 14 years of data in this paper.  We showed population declines between 2002 and 2012/13 followed by partial recoveries between 2012/13 and 2018.  The partial recovery was better than expected if it was due to reproduction alone, suggesting that the populations are being bolstered by immigration as well.  

  

Graph: Annual index values for populations of White-rumped (WRV: filled circles) and Slender-billed (SBV: open circles) Vultures in Nepal for 2002–2018, relative to 2002. Vertical lines for the WRV points are 95% confidence intervals from the quasi-Poisson model. Curves show results from the fitted piecewise log-linear regression models for WRV (solid line) and SBV (dashed line). Crosses in the upper part of the diagram show the estimated breakpoints and their 95% confidence intervals. Reproduced from Galligan et al. 2019 Bird Conservation International.

Following the national ban on veterinary diclofenac in 2006, we began monitoring diclofenac and other veterinary drugs in pharmacies in what would become the pVSZ.  We used both overt and covert methods – the former enabled us to enforce the ban at the same time; and the latter enabled us to gather accurate data on the illegal diclofenac.  We measured the number of shops that had diclofenac (overt) or sold diclofenac (covert).  Our overt surveys showed a dwindling number of shops stocking diclofenac between 2007 and 2010 and no shops stocking the drug between 2011 and 2016.  Our covert surveys showed approximately 2% of shops sold diclofenac between 2012 and 2016.  The opposite was true for meloxicam, increasing among shops between 2007-2016 and being sold in approximately 93% of shops between 2012 and 2016.

From 2012 onwards, Nepali veterinarians and livestock owners had stopped using diclofenac and were more often using meloxicam instead; and, as a result, Nepal’s vultures were no longer dying, and their numbers were being supplemented with survivors from other countries.  These are super encouraging findings.  But how did we achieve this? 

The ban on diclofenac did not bring about this positive change alone.  We worked hard advocating vulture conservation and educating communities on the vulture-toxic-NSAID problem.  Our aim was to rid Nepal of diclofenac and prevent another vulture-toxic NSAID taking its place.  We achieved this through wide community engagement, from local decision makers and authorities to veterinarians and farmers, and small conservation organisations to national media outlets.  We swapped meloxicam for diclofenac, managed Vulture-Safe Feeding Sites, developed vulture ecotourism and celebrated vultures and their ecosystem services.  It is these activities, on the back of the ban, that have truly benefitted Nepal’s vultures.

 

Table: Proportion of veterinary pharmacy survey shops in the Western Terai region at which diclofenac and meloxicam was offered for sale during open and undercover surveys. Reproduced from Galligan et al. 2019 Bird Conservation International.

 

Photo: Captive-release white-rumped vultures Gyps bengalensis fitted with satellite transmitters and wing tags. By Bird Conservation Nepal

Find out more on this story on the Save-vulture website.

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