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New Nestlings Bring Hope

…for Threatened Asian Vultures

The slender-billed vulture - one of the world’s most threatened birds - has been successfully bred in captivity for the first time, raising hopes that captive breeding has the potential to save this and other Critically Endangered Asian vultures from global extinction.

Two slender-billed vultures - which are rarer and more threatened in India than the tiger - have been reared at dedicated breeding centres in India, along with three Oriental white-backed vultures (another Critically Endangered species). It is estimated that only 1000 slender-billed vultures remain in the wild and their population is decreasing dramatically every year.

Last year saw the first successful captive breeding of Oriental white-backed vultures and there are encouraging signs that a third Critically Endangered species, the long-billed vulture, may breed in the centres next year.

The RSPB’s Chris Bowden is in charge of the Society’s Asian vulture programme. He said: “This news is a huge boost to those of us fighting to save Asian vultures, which face extinction in the wild within the next decade unless we can prevent the veterinary use of Diclofenac, which causes acute kidney failure in vultures consuming the carcasses of treated livestock.”A recent study found the Indian population of Oriental white-backed vultures is dropping by more than 40 per cent every year in India. This is one of the fastest recorded rates of decline for any species. For every 1000 oriental white-backed vultures recorded in India in1992, only one remains today. Numbers of long-billed and slender-billed vultures together, have fallen by almost 97 per cent since 1992.

Scientists believe numbers of Oriental white-backed vultures in India could now be down to fewer than 11,000 individuals from tens of millions in the 1980s. Populations of long-billed and slender-billed vultures have dropped to around 45,000 and 1,000 birds respectively.

The vultures’ catastrophic decline has been driven by the veterinary drug Diclofenac. The birds die of kidney failure after eating the carcasses of livestock that have died within a few days of treatment with the drug. Manufacture of the veterinary form of Diclofenac, used as an anti-inflammatory treatment for livestock, was outlawed in India in 2006, and although these veterinary formulations are disappearing, equally dangerous human formulations are instead being used to treat livestock.Captive-breeding programmes are a vital part of the effort to save the vultures. One of the slender-billed vultures fledged this year was bred at the Pinjore centre, in Haryana, and the second at Rajabhat Khawa, in West Bengal. This year’s three Oriental white-backed vultures were also fledged at Pinjore, in Haryana.

Chris Bowden, the RSPB’s Vulture Programme Manager, said: “This news is hugely exciting. It is clear we are refining our expertise, but with extinction in the wild likely in the next 10 years, we do not have a moment to waste. The more vultures that we can bring into captivity means a better chance of survival for these rapidly-declining species. Birds can only be saved from extinction through banning the retail sale of Diclofenac, promotion of the safe alternative, Meloxicam, and the capture of more birds for the breeding programme.”

Dr Vibhu Prakash, Head of the Bombay Natural History Society’s (BNHS) Vulture Breeding Programme, said: “As many more of the young birds reach maturity over the next two years, we confidently anticipate that breeding will really take off”.

Andrew Routh, Chief Veterinary Officer at ZSL, said: “This fantastic achievement can be attributed to the dedication and hard work of the breeding centre staff. Through sharing our expertise on the veterinary care of these magnificent birds, we look forward to our continued involvement on this collaborative project.”

There is growing support for the programme, especially from the Indian Government’s Ministry of Environment and Forests, who have recently allocated funds to expand the centres. The Haryana state government carried out important flood prevention measures at Pinjore earlier this year, and the Assam Government has funded the main office and visiting facility at the newest of the three BNHS run centres, at Rani Forest, in Assam.This is particularly welcome, as running costs are increasing, and the RSPB is currently paying for most of this, with some support from the Rufford Foundation.

Meanwhile in Nepal, an additional initiative led by the National Trust for Nature Conservation, Bird Conservation Nepal and the Department of National Parks & Wildlife Conservation, with support from the Zoological Society of London and RSPB, has successfully collected 44 young Oriental white-backed vultures ready to breed in future.

The main aviary is nearing completion and these birds are an important addition to those in India.

Anand Chaudhary, Vulture Officer with Bird Conservation Nepal, said: “This captive population will be vital for safeguarding the future of vultures in Nepal, alongside local and national efforts to remove the last remaining stocks of veterinary diclofenac to protect wild populations.”

Government efforts both in India and Nepal to ban veterinary formulations are taking effect, but further measures are needed to stop illegal use of human formulations in treating livestock. The safe alternative, meloxicam, is becoming more widely available and is now manufactured by over 20 companies in South Asia.

4th July 2014