This blog was originally on the Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) website. SAVE is a consortium of likeminded, regional and international organisations including the RSPB, created to oversee and co-ordinate conservation, campaigning and fundraising activities to help the plight of South Asia’s vultures. Today’s blog is by Ankit Bilash Joshi (Bird Conservation Nepal) and John Mallord (RSPB)

The ultimate goal of any breeding programme involving critically endangered species is to be able to supplement wild populations to prevent extinction. Within this overall aim, there are several other criteria that should ideally be met with released birds behaving in similar ways to their wild counterparts, such as breeding and founding/enhancing nesting colonies.

Recent news from Nepal suggests this is now the case with the white-rumped vultures released at the Vulture Safe Feeding Site (VSFS), fitted with GPS transmitters near the Chitwan National Park.

White-rumped vulture group feeding on a carcass, Pinjore (c) Paul Insua-Cao (rspb-images.com)

New update on monitored birds

Last year we announced that a pair of captive-reared vultures (#C1 and #C4) released in 2019 as adults, successfully fledged a chick around the feeding site. They were the first released birds to achieve this, and it was deemed a major success.

Another adult bird released in 2019 (12-year-old #C5) has this year been found sitting on a nest c.190km west of the VSFS. This is particularly satisfying given #C5 was found during Spring 2020 in a weak state and consequently taken into care at the VSFS before being released again. Unfortunately, the vulture deteriorated and was found a second time in May in the village of Aunrahwa, c.150km away in Uttar Pradesh (a state in Northern India) where she was cared for locally. Once fit enough to be released, #C5 has since established Uttar Pradesh as her home by spending a large proportion of her time on the Indian side of the border, whilst still nesting in Nepal.

In a similar situation, captive-bred #39 (hatched in captivity as part of the breeding programme) also left the VSFS during Spring 2020. It is suspected this bird may have joined a flock of migrating Himalayan Griffons as it was picked up in a weakened state high up in the mountains of the Manaslu Conservation Area at an altitude of 3,5000m, just 20 km from the Tibetan border. The vulture was returned to the VSFS and re-released after regaining fitness and now successfully nesting nearby.

First wild chick

Another captive-bred bird has also made history for the Nepal breeding programme by producing a chick, the first captive-bred bird to have done so. The female (#44) was released in 2018 and attempted to nest last year with a wild bird but failed to produce an egg.

Captive-bred White-rumped Vulture #44 with newly-hatched chick on nest (c) Deu Bahadur Rana/Bird Conservation Nepal

This year, #44 and her mate took over a previous nest constructed by #C1 and #C4, who built another nest just a couple metres below in the same tree. Interestingly, the chick produced by #44 is sometimes cared for by another captive-bred bird (#38) who has been seen visiting the nest. This is a very rare occurrence in white-rumped vultures, although another bird has been observed helping to incubate another pair’s egg.

Mystery of fourth vulture

A wild vulture (#E0), which was caught, tagged and released in 2019, has been monitored over two years. This bird successfully bred last year and has spent most of its time within the newly established Vulture Safe Zone. During February this year however, #E0 left the VSFS and took a circuitous route north before leaving the VSFS.

Over the last two weeks, the bird has since traversed the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in India, skirting the edges of tiger reserves at Bandhavgarh and Kanha. Having reached Maharashtra, over 850km from the VSFS, it has turned round and now heading back through Madhya Pradesh, travelling approximately 100km a day. The behaviour is baffling and there are no current explanations, but movements of this bird continue to be monitored.

The route taken by wild White-rumped Vulture #E0 between 22nd Feb to 16th Mar. The newly-declared Vulture Safe Zone in Nepal is shown in red.

As these birds prove, the monitoring of captive-released and captive-bred birds continues to show nesting activity. The outcome of future nest surveys will hopefully demonstrate more successful nests and chicks, indicating that the white-rumped vulture breeding programme is achieving its main goal.

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