Ensuring a Future for Vultures, Nature's Cleanup Crew

In the spirit of Halloween, we share the story of one of nature’s “creepy creatures” that is more important than most people realize.
In many cultures, vultures have long had a bad reputation as ominous animals that signal death wherever they go. In fact, vultures play a critical role in keeping all of us healthy.
Not long ago, millions of vultures roamed the skies across South Asia, cleaning up livestock carcasses and reducing the likelihood of disease transmission. They are sacred to the Hindu and vital for Tibetan Buddhists in northern Nepal and Parsi in India for disposal of their dead.
But now these birds are helpless against a surprising enemy: a drug called diclofenac that has decimated the vulture population by as much as 99.9% in less than two decades. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists four of the nine species in the region as Critically Endangered; an additional species is listed as Endangered. Their absence has led to growing populations of rats, feral dogs and other scavengers, increasing the potential for the spread of diseases like rabies, anthrax and the plague.
Diclofenac is widely used to relieve pain and reduce fever and inflammation. Until recently, it was among the most popular drugs in veterinary treatment of cattle. When vultures feed on livestock that have been given this drug, it causes kidney failure. Scientists estimate that a 30-milliliter vial of diclofenac is enough to kill around 500 vultures.
The veterinary manufacture and use of this drug was banned in 2005, and a safe alternative (meloxicam) was introduced in the market. Recent studies have shown meloxicam has largely replaced diclofenac. However, some are resisting the change and using diclofenac manufactured for human use, meaning the vultures still need all the help they can get.
With funding support from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the UNDP/Global Environmental Facility Small Grants Programme, Bird Conservation Nepal successfully created a series of community-managed safe feeding areas popularly known as “vulture restaurants” in areas with existing vulture colonies.
Together with awareness and advocacy activities, this has ensured diclofenac-free food throughout the birds’ nine-month breeding period and is helping impoverished communities improve their livelihoods through ecotourism. Nest numbers around these restaurants were found to be stable or increasing, while colonies elsewhere have declined rapidly.
In 2010, we received support from Save Our Species and the Conservation Leadership Programme to pilot the world’s first “vulture safe zone*” (VSZ) — an expanded safe area around the restaurants that integrates community outreach, a diclofenac-free pledge from the veterinary community, government policy at the local and national level and scientific research such as monitoring of nesting colonies and veterinary drug use.
With further funding from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, we were able to expand the VSZ to 22,206 square kilometers (8,574 square miles) by the end of this project to cover all of southwestern Nepal. We’ve also undertaken a number of educational initiatives to help local people better understand the value of vultures and the threats they face, including a leaflet campaign, presentations at schools and scientific training for young people in the region.
Perhaps the most important achievement of the project was to convince the wider scientific community, governments and donors that the VSZ was necessary and actually possible, and that local communities and veterinarians are committed to making the region safer for the vultures. The VSZ has been integrated into the Nepalese government’s five-year vulture conservation action plan and endorsed by Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), an umbrella body of South Asia’s stakeholders in vulture conservation.
By mid-2013, Nepal’s vulture safe zone had grown to 39,212 square kilometers (15,140 square miles) and linked up with a parallel project across the Indian border. A study in 2012 has revealed vulture population decline has slowed in the region.
Bird Conservation Nepal continues to spearhead vulture conservation and is a key ally in the regional SAVE network. Ongoing activities include a captive breeding program, long-term monitoring of all known vulture colonies, continued awareness raising, expanding the VSZ, technical support for five community-managed vulture restaurants, providing “nationally protected species” status for all threatened species of vultures and pursuing a ban on manufacture of human diclofenac in large vial sizes, as well as a ban on other drugs similar to diclofenac which are not known to be safe for vultures.
While all these measures are important, expanding the vulture safe zone and ensuring it is free of diclofenac is the key priority to ensure the future of these remarkable birds that keep our planet clean. A world without vultures — now that’s a scary thought.
Anand Chaudhary is currently a graduate student at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, studying conservation biology. He worked as vulture conservation program officer at Bird Conservation Nepal from 2008 to 2011. The Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) is a partnership of CI, BirdLife International, Fauna & Flora International and the Wildlife Conservation Society. CLP’s mission is to advance biodiversity conservation globally by building the leadership skills of early-career conservationists working in places with limited capacity to address conservation issues.
*This has since been renamed as “provisional vulture safe zone.”