Vulture Safe Zones

 

The eventual recovery of vultures in Asia will be enhanced if it is possible to protect and retain small but key remaining vulture populations in the wild through creating “Vulture Safe Zones” where there is a very low risk of diclofenac poisoning in the areas surrounding remaining breeding colonies. These sites will be vitally important, not just for the numbers they retain within a natural system but because they are also likely to be utilised as some of the first release sites for captive reared birds. Release efforts will be focused in areas where it has been established that vultures can be protected and birds are likely to congregate at these sites. Vulture Safe Zones and Vulture Conservation Breeding Centres are complimentary approaches for conserving vultures and both are vital.

 

Work on creating Vulture Safe Zones has been lead by Bird Conservation Nepal, with further efforts being undertaken in Gujarat, India (follow this link). In Nepal initial efforts at one breeding colony close to Chitwan National Park has led to local increases in numbers of nesting birds in the three years that the project has been running, with numbers of nesting pairs increasing from 17 to 45 pairs. This conservation effort first focuses on removing all available stocks of veterinary diclofenac from the areas surrounding the breeding colony (up to a distance of >50 km) and replacing this with the vulture safe drug meloxicam. At the site close to Chitwan over US $2,000 of meloxicam has been swapped to replace diclofenac. Ridding the environment of diclofenac is the key conservation action that will save Asia’s vultures: both the advocacy programme and conservation efforts around colonies are aiming to achieve this same in-situ conservation goal.

 

 

The final element of the programme is to attract vultures in to and to retain vultures within the safe area through the provision of regular and safe food supply in the form of a “Jatayu Restaurant”. Safe food has been provided by establishing a cow shelter in the villages surrounding the vulture colonies. These farms buy old cattle at the end of their working lives that are otherwise destined to be sold to cattle traders (for use as meat) or else abandoned by their owners in forest land or outside villages. In Nepal, old cattle can be purchased for around US $2 and many animals are given to the project, as it saves local people from otherwise feeding or abandoning an animal that is otherwise a burden.

 

The cattle are housed in purpose built cow sheds and herded to fields on community owned land in the village where they can graze. No cattle are killed and a project veterinarian ensures their welfare with regular checks and if necessary medical treatment with the notable exception of never using diclofenac! The animals die a natural death from old age and these carcasses are then skinned (providing an important income to the project to pay the cattle herder and purchase more old animals) and the safe drug free carcass is then placed out for vultures to feed upon. Flocks of over 150 vultures are now regularly seen at three in-situ conservation sites in Nepal that have followed the approach outline above.

 

The jury is still out on the long-term effectiveness of these in the wild conservation activities and long-term monitoring combined with research will help assess if they can sustain viable wild populations. Follow the links below for more debate on this topic and further information and images from the work

 

Further information about the project in Nepal

 

Information about vulture conservation work in Gujarat, India

 

 

The diclofenac/meloxicam swapping work is followed up with an extensive education and awareness programme on the value of vultures for the local community in regards their ability to clean up carcasses and therefore help reduce the risk of disease and increasing numbers of feral dogs. Workshops are held with farmers, vets and pharmacists to make sure they know of the problems with diclofenac use. Interest from national and international tourists to visit and watch vultures also provides a further economic incentive for local communities to protect their vultures and ensure diclofenac is not used in the surrounding district, and viewing hides are being set up at some sites.