Today’s blog has been written by RSPB Head of Vulture Programme Chris Bowden, Senior Conservation Scientist John Mallord and Research Assistant Jenny Donelan.

Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) is a consortium consisting of 24 organisations, all of which have one common goal, to save Asia’s endangered Vultures. These organisations all agree that they will prioritise and help implement actions to conserve endangered vultures, based on sound scientific evidence.

SAVE meets annually, bringing together the 24 partners in order to review and update the blueprint for the recovery of Asia’s globally threatened vultures. In this blog we outline the key achievements of SAVE during 2019, and further steps that will be implemented to ensure a positive future for Asia’s vultures.

Poster produced by Jenny Donelan

Which species are threatened, and why?

South Asia’s vultures have suffered catastrophic declines since the early 1990s, with an astonishing 99.9% decline for white-rumped vulture, as well as very serious declines of long-billed vulture/Indian vulture, red-headed vulture and slender-billed vulture populations, and now all four of these species are classified as Critically Endangered. This decline was extremely abrupt and was coincident with the appearance of diclofenac in pharmacies which was used as a veterinary drug.

This drug was used extensively for veterinary purposes in cattle, but it was not identified as the main, if not sole, cause of the dramatic population declines of South Asia’s vultures until 2003. The drug was indirectly consumed by vultures as they fed on the carcasses of deceased animals, and in turn they ingested lethal doses of this drug. It was at this point the RSPB agreed to engage more seriously to provide technical and financial support to ensure this threat was addressed.

Thankfully the governments of India, Nepal, and Pakistan responded to the scientific findings and conservation pressure and were quick to act through implementing bans for the veterinary use of diclofenac in 2006, followed by Bangladesh in 2010. These bans have been backed up by intensive advocacy and education work within local communities carried out by local SAVE partners, especially BNHS, BCN, IUCN Bangladesh and WWF Pakistan.

Additionally, with extensive RSPB funding, ambitious vulture breeding programmes were launched in India and Nepal. These breeding programmes have been a major component of population recovery efforts, and although initiated when it appeared that the entire wild populations might disappear altogether, they now provide invaluable focus. The release of captive bred vultures can supplement the depleted wild populations and test the safety of the environment from diclofenac and other similar dangerous drugs, as well as any emerging new threats.

The 9th annual meeting of Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction (SAVE)

Outstanding achievements of 2019.

  • Publication of a paper that shows that populations of white-rumped and slender-billed vultures in Nepal are both increasing, reversing the previous steep declines, which coincided with the role-out of intensive work within Vulture Safe Zones, following the ban on the veterinary use of diclofenac.
  • The Cambodian government declares a ban on the veterinary use of diclofenac, with immediate effect in July 2019. This is in response to the discovery of the drug being sold for veterinary use in 2018, and pressure placed upon the Cambodian government by the SAVE partner Cambodia Vulture Working Group.
  • A Bangladesh Government meeting called by the Livestock Department in June has brought crucial engagement needed to enforce the ban of ketoprofen and aceclofenac in Vulture Safe Zones.
  • Phase 2 Tolfenamic Acid safety testing was a success! Tentatively suggesting that this NSAID may be safe for vultures!
  • 13 white-rumped vultures were released in Nepal in October 2019 – 6 captive reared and 7 captive bred individuals. As with previous releases, the birds have been fitted with GPS telemetry tags. Along with a further ten wild white-rumped vultures also fitted with GPS tags, these birds will help to confirm that the threat of diclofenac has been removed from Nepal’s Vulture Safe Zones.
  • The construction of one colony aviary in the Assam centre is nearing completion and a second one is also underway.
  • Methodology for harnessing vultures was further developed with expert input thanks to an international workshop with key world tagging experts in August 2019 at ICBP, UK, in conjunction with the IUCN Vulture Specialist Group.
  • Government funding to aid a breed and release programme has covered many breeding centres across India, which also included construction of two urgently needed colony aviaries in West Bengal.
  • SAVE engagement is growing in the Middle East, including an initial move in Oman for a ban on veterinary diclofenac use. Saudi Arabia is meanwhile progressing a similar measure, while initiatives in Socotra/Yemen are reported for the first time.
  • The ban on the veterinary use of diclofenac in Iran is holding up very effectively!

Vultures like these white-rumped and slender-billed were at risk of being permanently lost (c) Devki Nanda (rspb-images.com)

Looking to the future- what are the next steps to continue protecting Asia’s vultures?

SAVE and its partners continue to raise awareness about the effects of diclofenac (and other toxic NSAIDs) on vulture populations in Asia and encourage the ban of their use in veterinary medicine.

Conservation breeding is going well; however, our SAVE partners still need to raise funds to continue these vital conservation programmes, along with continued work in Vulture Safe Zones and the search for vulture friendly alternatives to diclofenac.

SAVE are still taking donations if you want to donate to help save Asia’s vultures click here.

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