Blog by Dr Juliet Vickery, Head of International Research, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

Its 1030am and the thick mist, typical of Nepal’s Terai at this time of year, is now burning off rapidly, revealing the surrounding landscape of grassland and fish ponds skirting the forest edge.

A group of 14 white-rumped vultures (Gyps bengalensis) circle in the sky to the north and another 8 sit, hunch backed and motionless, in the almost leafless branches of a tall tree about 2 km away. These birds are why we are here.

Saving Asian Vulture Programme

Catching these birds is a key part of the Saving Asian Vulture Programme (SAVE). White-rumped vultures, along with two other species of Gyps vulture (long-billed G. Indicus and sender-billed G. tenuirostris) are now critically endangered as a result of the use of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac which was, until recently, a very widespread treatment for sick cows. The meat of a dead, recently ‘diclofenac-dosed’ cow, is lethal to vultures and, being sacred, cows are not eaten but taken to carcass dumps and left for scavengers. Thus, one toxic cow can kill an awful lot of vultures.

SAVE, a partnership of NGOs and Governments, has worked hard over many years to secure a ban on veterinary use of the drug in the Indian sub-continent, find and test ‘vulture safe’ alternatives for livestock and establish a captive population to safeguard the species.

In this part of lowland Nepal, on the western side of Chtiwan Natonal Park, where a few vulture colonies still exist, Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) has worked hard to raise awareness of the problem with local communities and to swap diclofenac in pharmacies with the safe alternative meloxicam. They have been so successful in this work that this part of the Terai is now, tentatively, considered vulture safe and is destined to be the site of the first releases of captive birds.

Everyone involved remains cautiously optimistic but also acutely aware that it is impossible to be absolutely sure an area of ca 100km radius from a release site (the estimated home range size of a white-rumped vulture) really is diclofenac free. For this reason only five captive reared birds will be released, each fitted with a satellite tag to monitor their whereabouts. If any of these birds die, the tag should enable  the carcass to be retrieved quickly for a post mortem to, hopefully, confirm the cause of death was not diclofenac. Tagging and releasing five wild caught birds will also allow scientists to check that the captive birds behave normally once released, providing a vital part of the picture before further releases are possible.

Photo: White rumped vulture (RSPB Images)

The mission

We need to catch five of these birds and the theory is simple: the hungry vultures are lured into an open aviary-like trap with a skinned buffalo carcass and, once they are busy fighting over food, the trap door is lowered by a rope and pulley system operated from the hide. If only it had proved as easy as it sounds.

BCN’s field team of seven is led by programme manager Krishna Bhusal with support from RSPB senior scientist Toby Galligan. Both have been in the hide since 430am along with one other BCN staff member Ishwari and two RSPB film crew. I have joined them along with another RSPB scientist, Alison Beresford, on sabbatical. Our job, along with and BCN staff Devendra and Kewal and Ankit was to ‘wait in the wings’ until the birds were caught and keep feral dogs away from the catch site.

Photo: Hides eye view of the Vulture catching cage 

The long wait

As one hot hour stretched into another, Alison kept in touch via texts with Toby and, between updates on who was off duty and asleep and the dwindling snack supply of boiled eggs and biscuits, these provide quite a good running commentary of a very long and hot wait:

Alison, 10.56am: how’s things in the hide?

Toby: Ok. Film crew are asleep. I have a feeling that we are going to be here for a while. You?

Alison: We are fine. BCN guys are birding reading and chasing off dogs.

Almost two hours later:

Alison, 12:43pm: Things are looking more promising 33 in tree and 14 circling.

Toby: That’s good now they only need to land and walk into trap.

An hour and a half later:

Toby, 2:06pm: A dozen were down but they got spooked.

Alison: Ah frustrating most birds now circling 1km away. How are things in the hide?

Toby: depressed!  Think we may be coming out for lunch

The film crew did indeed emerge. Predicting a long day, they needed equipment more suited to fading light. But ironically 15 minutes after they left …

Alison, 2:38pm: Looks like the birds are on their way back now the camera crew are away

Toby: yep, some are on the ground and feeding on the bait outside the trap

But then…

Toby, 2:56pm: Vultures are back in the trees. I have lost hope for today, but will stick it out for one more hour or so.

And that hour turned out to be just enough. The film crew returned, the texting ceased and we waited with baited breath having seen large group of vultures descend from the trees into the vicinity of the bait. Finally, Devendra got the call we had hoped for: “We go, they have the birds!”

We leapt to our feet and hurried to the catch site, a small area of grassland, surrounded by bushes and littered with bleach-white bones from previous ‘habituation’ feeding events. There, in the large aviary carefully constructed from ‘tree trunk size’ bamboo stems and rope netting, were eight white-rumped vultures. Scuffling backwards and forwards, dusty brown with flashes of white on their underwings and back. They appeared less alarmed than seriously grumpy, although perhaps that’s because it’s hard to imagine something as tough and apparently indomitable as a vulture feeling alarmed.

Our five birds

Extracting five individual birds from this angry mob was the job of Ishwari and Ankit. Each bird calmly cornered, restrained on the ground with a hand held net and expertly immobilised by holding the neck and feet firmly but gently with very thickly gloved hands before hugging the bird to prevent it flapping and injuring  its wings.

Once in a safe ‘embrace’ each bird has a quick health check, is transferred to a large wooden box and carried to the hide. The whole process was made slightly surreal by the fact that everyone wore all-encompassing, white protective overalls, white overshoes, green surgical gloves, orange face masks and goggles. Precautions against injury and infection, given the eating habitats of vultures make them potential carriers of all kinds of disease. Not only were we all very keen to avoid the risk of infection ourselves but many of the BCN staff will go on to handle captive birds in the near future and needed to do all they could to minimise any risk of transferring disease or infection to these birds.

So, many hours after the ‘hide team’ took up position there we were with five vultures, boxed up and ready for stage two of our work: tagging.

Inside the hide it is hot and airless and the birds clatter claws and beaks against the wooden boxes, protesting against their confinement. The team are keen to ‘process and release’ them as quickly as possible; each person knows his task and calmly and professionally gets on with the job.  

Each bird is carefully transferred to a hessian sling to be weighed then onto a wooden table to be fitted with a satellite tag. This is attached much like a back pack and great care is taken to ensure the Teflon ribbon straps are not too tight or too lose before being cut and sewn at the correct length. Finally, the birds are marked with yellow wing tags bearing a unique number allowing them to be identified in the field and given a quick final heath check before being released.

Photo: White rumped vulture in the process of having a satellite tag fitted by Krishna (left) and Toby Galligan (right) and waiting for the bespoke fitting of the harness

The release

The first bird flaps away on strong, now tagged, wings to join a group of seven others in a nearby tree. The team cheers, one down four to go.

The final bird followed the first one two hours later. A seriously long ‘day in the office’ but a hugely successful and, in many ways, momentous one. These birds will be sentinels, providing a means of monitoring the safety of the environment for other vultures and reassurance that captive reared birds can adapt to life in the wild. 

Only two things left to do: finally remove the suffocating protective clothing and the head back to base for a celebratory drink. To the health and long life of these five birds.