Asian vultures faced with a plummeting population after eating animals treated with a toxic veterinary drug have been thrown a lifeline in Nepal.
Three once-populous species of vultures have been forced to the brink of extinction by the widespread introduction of a drug commonly used to treat livestock in the Indian sub continent.
While good for the lifestock, the drug, diclofenac, has decimated the birds as even in tiny doses it cripples their kidneys, quickly causing death.
In May the Indian Government announced it would be banning the drug, giving vets three months to phase out its use (see related story).
Now in Nepal, another stronghold for the threatened Oriental white-backed vulture and the slender-billed vulture and long-billed vulture, the leading veterinary drug company has said it will sell a replacement drug, meloxicam, at the same price, prompting Nepalese authorities to halt the domestic manufacture and import of diclofenac with immediate effect.
“Although vultures might not have won any friends on account of their appearance, within the Indian sub continent they have performed a vital role clearing up carcasses and other remains which are now causing quite severe health problems,” a spokesman for the RSPB told edie.
“They were among the most abundant birds of prey in the world but now these three species are critically endangered and we will probably never see the skies filled with vultures as was the case historically.”
Vultures are long living, slow breeding birds and there are now less than 10,000 pairs of the three species remaining – the speed of their decline having outstripped that of the famed – and doomed – dodo.
Apart from the loss of biodiversity, the shrinking population is having an impact on both human health and traditions.
“With this absence of carrion feeders we are seeing an increase of rabies as other species come in to fill the niche, particularly feral dogs,” said the RSPB spokesman.
“It is also having a cultural impact, in particular among the Parsi. In their sky burials vultures used to be encouraged to come down to the Towers of Silence and consume the remains of their dead.
“With fewer vultures this is now becoming more difficult.”
The progress in Nepal shows that commercially viable drugs are available to replace diclofenac.
“We’re extremely hopeful now that we have the alternative,” said the spokesman. “We want to get this drug out of circulation because of the damage that it is doing.
“It’s good news for the remaining vultures – the first step has to be to try to safeguard the population we still have before we look at increasing the numbers.”
Populations of the three threatened species spread from Afghanistan to south east Asia, but are concentrated in India, Nepal and Pakistan.
The spokesman said the RSPB wanted to see the drug taken off the market before its use spread from Asia to Africa and Europe where related vulture populations could also be affected.
Bird Conservation Nepal, the Bombay Natural History Society, the RSPB and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) have campaigned for a diclofenac ban for several years and in January scientists proved that meloxicam was a safe replacement, which led to the diclofenac ban in India.
Dr Hem Sagar Baral, chief executive officer of Bird Conservation Nepal said: “It is not too late for Nepal’s vultures. The prompt removal of diclofenac and the introduction of meloxicam, along with local conservation initiatives, can bring these essential birds back from the brink of extinction.”