Releasing captive-bred endangered vultures for reintroduction and restocking is now a common conservation tool in Europe - the VCF has been coordinating several successful bearded vulture reintroduction projects based on releases of captive-bred birds from our captive-breeding network. We have also been supporting black vulture reintroduction projects in France, in which captive-bred black vultures were also released (together with rehabilitated wild-origin birds), and have recently been testing the best release methods for Egyptian vulture using captive-bred individuals (released in Italy and Bulgaria in recent years).
This technique though had never been used before in South Asia, where vulture populations suffered a catastrophic decline in the early 2000s, due to the use of the veterinary drug diclofenac. Now, earlier this month (9th November), the Government of Nepal, the Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN), and other national and international conservation organisations, released captive-bred critically endangered white-rumped vultures Gyps bengalensis, in the first event of its kind in South Asia.
Six vultures were released at the Jatayu supplementary feeding site in Pithauli, Nawalparasi. Released birds joined wild ones that came down to feed on the food offered. The six birds had been transferred to a pre-release aviary last April, where they had the opportunity to acclimatise (see video below).
The released vultures quickly fed with wild vultures, holding their own in the typical vulture feeding scuffles. Eventually they attempted to fly, which they found difficult at first, partly because it was their first unrestricted flight and partly because their crops were full of meat! Monitoring of the vultures continues, using satellite telemetry to locate them in the field.
The vultures had been raised in captivity in Nepal’s Vulture Conservation and Breeding Centre in Chitwan National Park, established in 2008 as a collaborative project of the Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation (Chitwan National Park), the National Trust for Nature Conservation and Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN), and support from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the International Centre for Birds of Prey and the Zoological Society of London. Presently, there are 50 adult White-rumped Vultures and 8 fledglings in the breeding centre.
The birds were released within the country’s provisional Vulture Safe Zone in the western lowlands of Nepal. It is a large area (30,000 km2 from the districts of Nawalparasi to Kalali) where awareness raising activities among communities have ensured that diclofenac is not used as a veterinary drug. The area extends transboundary into Uttar Pradesh, India where further efforts are underway, led by Bombay Natural History Society, and the UP Forest Department. Further releases of captive-bred vultures are also planned for India in 2018.
Nepal is home to nine species of vultures. Five of these species, including the white-rumped vulture, underwent catastrophic population declines of greater than 90% in the mid-1990s to early-2010s. The birds are now considered critically endangered.
The loss of vultures has caused a loss in the vital ecosystem service that they provide. Vultures clean the environment of animal carcasses.
The Government of Nepal banned the production and use of veterinary diclofenac in 2006. Undercover surveys of pharmacies within the provisional Vulture Safe Zone have found no diclofenac in the last four years. As a result, population declines have slowed and possibly even reversed.
In April and November this year, BCN and the RSPB had already fitted satellite transmitters to 11 adult wild white-rumped vultures. All vultures are alive, breeding at several sites within the provisional Vulture Safe Zone and foraging up to 100km from where they were caught, frequently flying into India to forage.
This milestone comes soon after 126 countries, signatories of the of Convention for Migratory Species (CMS), adopted last month the Vulture Multi-species Action Plan – a blueprint global action plan for vulture conservation in the old work. They further added 4 Asian Vultures to CMS Appendix I, giving them the highest level of protection.
The vulture conservation activities underway in south Asia, including in Nepal, are directly contributing to the implementation of the Vulture MsAP, and help build the momentum needed for the restoration of vulture species in the region.