Stephanie Morren recently travelled to India to work at a captive breeding centre set up to help re-establish Asian vultures, and wrote this blog about her experiences.
They're pretty ugly, all hairless necks and blood-covered bills, and they eat dead animals. But the truth is better than that.
Vultures are vital.
In South Asia, they're nature's cleaners and tidiers – binmen, if you like. They clean up what would otherwise be left to rot and harbour dangerous diseases.
It's pretty amazing: a single vulture can consume 120 kg of flesh in a year, and a vulture flock can clean up a carcass in several hours.
Imagine what would happen if we didn't get a rubbish collection for a few weeks. The streets would smell awful, and be strewn with rubbish.
In the same way, if we didn't have vultures, vast areas of South Asia would fill up with dead animal carcasses.
But all is not rosy in vulture land. In the last 10–15 years, Asian vultures have declined enormously, so much so that 99.9% of white-backed and 97% of long-billed and slender-billed vultures are now extinct. This amounts to a massive 40 million birds.
In 2003, we found out the reason for these declines. The anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac was being widely administered to cattle by vets. When these animals died, the vultures ate the flesh, which still contained traces of the drug, leading to death in just a few days.
In India, for example, cows hold a very important cultural status. It's a country where 70% of the population is Hindu, and cows are revered as sacred. There is therefore a strong move to keep cows alive, and to use veterinary drugs such as diclofenac.
The slaughter of cows is completely banned in eleven states, and so cows are left to die naturally, with their bodies left outside villages, which were then stripped by vultures. Vultures strip and clean a carcass and ensure that bacteria and disease are prevented from contaminating soil and water.
But in parts of South Asia, there are so few vultures that increasing numbers of feral dogs are feeding on the dead cattle, often attacking villagers, and spreading diseases such as anthrax and deadly rabies.
For a long time, diclofenac was widely used to treat sick cattle, with no knowledge that it was harmful to vultures. But, in 2006, together with our partners, we successfully lobbied to get diclofenac banned for veterinary use.
However, three vulture species have been left hanging terrifyingly close to extinction.
Re-establish vulture numbers
Alongside our partners SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction) and BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society), we created a programme to re-establish vulture numbers.
We've set up three centres where vultures are safely bred in captivity before being released into the wild. To date, we've successfully bred a total of 200 oriental white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed Gyps vultures, all of which will be released back into the wild.
Vultures only start to breed when they're five years old, and produce just one chick a year, so it will take a considerable amount of time to re-establish Asia's vulture populations, which is why the vulture breeding centres are so important.
But a vulture breeding centre costs £360,000 a year to run, and can only run with the help of donations.
There's another problem too, in that there's a risk that releasing captive-bred birds into areas where there are still traces of diclofenac might create the same problem. Therefore, we're working to create 100 square kilometre (38 square mile) vulture safe zones, where we know that all contamination has been removed.
It's a crisis, and we need to act now.
Nick Phillips, RSPB Senior Policy Officer, recently spent his RSPB sabbatical working at the Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre at Pinjore, Haryana State, India.
In this blog post he writes about his experiences and impressions of conservation in South-East Asia.
The Haryana Centre was developed with considerable support from the Darwin Initiative and State Government of Haryana.
We received a warm welcome at the vulture conservation breeding centre in Pinjore, North India: one of the first things to greet us was a rather large Russell’s viper. So we made a mental note – no walking through long grass in sandals!
Perched on the roof
Another lovely sight was that of a wild, white-backed vulture perched on one the roof of one of the aviaries – a fine start to our month-long sabbatical with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS).
The centre is an impressive place. There are 240 captive vultures from three critically endangered species. The plan is to release these birds back into the wild, so human contact is kept to a minimum.
High quality CCTV cameras watch each of the main aviaries so staff can observe the vultures from a safe distance several times each day.
The birds are breeding successfully and demonstrating all kinds of natural behaviour. Vultures are remarkably clean and after each feed bathe and preen extensively. They also regularly open their massive wings and flap them to keep their pectoral muscles strong.
But you need a strong stomach to witness feeding time. The vultures here are fed twice a week and entirely on goats as cows are not killed in this part of India. The goats arrive skinned and are carefully weighed to make sure that the birds get the right amount of food.
Once a year in September, the vultures are rounded up for a health check. Young birds are fitted with microchips and leg rings, and are sexed by DNA analysis (it is impossible to tell males and females apart by sight). As many adults as possible are also caught and checked.
This is a huge undertaking as catching birds of that size and strength is quite a feat! This annual event requires all hands on deck to get it done as quickly as possible to minimise the disturbance to the birds, and we're delighted to be here during this exciting time to help.
This centre and others in India and Nepal will continue to look after and breed vultures, with the ultimate aim being to release them into the wild. But to do this we must create Vulture Safe Zones.
Advocacy and communication
It will take a huge amount of advocacy and communication to stop the illegal use of diclofenac for treating cattle. A safe alternative (meloxicam) is available but it is quite hard to persuade people to use it. Instead the focus of communications is on how vultures are critical for public health: their natural and rapid removal of carcasses reduces the numbers of flies and feral dogs, and removes the need to pay for carcass disposal.
So far, the focus of our work here has been to help develop a communications plan and materials for a variety of audiences. We need to influence chemists, drug controllers and vets, as well as local cattle owners and families.
The project has come a long way in the last 15 years: identifying the cause of the vultures’ dramatic decline, successfully lobbying for a ban on the veterinary use of diclofenac and successfully breeding all three species in captivity. It has been ground-breaking work.
The focus now is to take the next steps to ensure a sustainable population of these magnificent birds.
Here's a guest blog from one of our team working at the front line of curlew conservation as we work with farmers and landowners to tackle the losses of this iconic wading bird. Our work in England is part funded by Natural England's Action for Birds In England programme for which we are grateful.
I’m Matt Marsh, and I’m one of the six Research Assistants (the other five hard workers being Jenny, Tom, Steve, Helen, Chris, and of course our wonderful line manager, Pip!) who worked on the Trial Management for Curlew Project this season.
The trial sites where we worked this year are all in stunning parts of the UK, but personally I have a soft spot for Geltsdale as that is where I was based for the duration of my contract. I’m delighted to have the chance to sum up our field seasons in this short blog, and to give an idea of what it’s been like for us working day to day in the uplands, wandering the hills searching for curlew. I will try to give my best insight!
Our contracts started back in March, and after a couple of days spent in Edinburgh for our induction (picking up equipment, Personal Protective Equipment, and our vehicles) we all went our separate ways to our field sites. We were eased in gently with a few days of fox scat transects (fox scats are fox poo, in case you were wondering – ed), which gave us an opportunity to explore our sites and get used to the terrain we’d be working on.
After a week or so we started our bird surveys, accompanied by the usual early morning starts! For me, this meant normally waking between 5:00am and 5:45am, depending on where I was surveying. Of course we could only survey if the weather forecast was relatively clear and not too windy, but that didn’t mean missing the odd soaking! In April I also got caught in a few snow showers, which doesn’t sound like much, but when you’ve never experienced snow in the uplands, it can be quite the dramatic! However, the majority of days were fine, and gave me ample opportunity to take in the sights, sounds and smells around me whilst surveying.
Some of my personal highlights include encountering (and very nearly stepping on) numerous adders, seeing short eared owls hunting in the early morning light, and of course hearing the trilling call of the iconic curlew, which I think epitomises the very moors they call home.
Curlews are in trouble and we're working with farmers and landowners to save them
Of course paying attention to the wildlife and scenery around me, be that for the job or my own pleasure, often meant that I ended up sinking into bogs and falling into shallow gully’s carved by dried up or (to the detriment of my clothes) still full flowing streams. My colleagues, I’m sure can empathise with this!
With most of the job involving working alone, I also often found myself talking to the animals around me, greeting the reserve cows as they stared at me quizzically while I surveyed, or apologising to odd bird I flushed as I walked through the vegetation. A little bit strange, I know, hopefully I’m not the only one! I became very familiar where individual bird pairs lived (from stonechats, and whinchats, to golden plover and of course, curlew), and felt comfortably reassured each time I came across them as I surveyed. Although this gave some consistency, no two days were the same, and the unpredictability of what you may come across while you were out working was, for me, a huge perk of the job. Talking of perks, I have to mention the hen harriers as well, which I came across numerous times whilst out surveying. They were a joy to watch and I have my fingers and toes crossed for the one chick that fledged from the reserve nest this year!
Doing fox scat surveys throughout the season, and having over a month of vegetation surveys at the end of the season, meant we did a LOT of walking, and I am confident we all must have walked a few hundred kilometres over the course of our contracts. I’m much fitter than I was before I started, and all my current trousers are a bit looser around the waist, so I can certainly say this job has benefitted my health if nothing else! Hopefully that’s not the only benefit, and the work being done in this project and many others will help to shed light on what we can do to save the curlew.