One small step for a vulture, one giant leap for vulture-kind

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One small step for a vulture, one giant leap for vulture-kind

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Blog by Alison Beresford, Conservation Scientist, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science

This is it… the moment we’ve all been waiting for.  As we crowd into the hide, there’s a sense of nervous anticipation. We watch and wait, binoculars trained eagerly on the scene in front of us. Six white-rumped vultures (Gyps bengalensis), resplendent with their yellow wing-tags, are perched inside a large aviary. Just outside the door, lies a fresh cow carcass.

Photo: White-rumped vultures with yellow wing-tags (by Bird Conservation Nepal)

A very special day

Today is a very special day. Today is the day the door opens. We are in the lowland Terai of Nepal, the Secretary of the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation and the Director General of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation are here to do the honours. They pull on the rope behind the hide, and the door to the aviary slides smoothly to one side.

As the anticipation (and temperature) in the hide builds, so do the numbers of wild vultures in the surrounding trees. Birds soar and circle overhead, checking out the scene. Gradually, they close in. One by one they position themselves on nearby branches. The vultures are naturally cautious, as they know they’re at their most vulnerable when they come down to the ground to feed.

Eventually, one brave bird lands on the grass, a little way from the carcass. It looks round suspiciously. Then a second bird lands, and a third... they gain courage in their numbers and approach the carcass. As the birds get stuck in, using their sharp beaks and long, muscular necks to tear off chunks of meat, more and more swoop down from the trees to join them. Before long, a full-on feeding frenzy is underway, with 20 or 30 birds all jostling for their space in the scrum.

But what of our birds in the aviary?

Taken into captivity as fledglings, they’ve spent the last seven years at the Vulture Conservation and Breeding Centre in nearby Chitwan National Park. As this is the first release of its kind, nobody knows how they will react to their new-found freedom. We watch, and we wait. The door is open and a juicy meal awaits, but they’ve never interacted with wild birds before.  We look on anxiously, silently willing them to emerge.  At first, they show no signs of interest, perched high inside their cage. Then, one of them spots the lure - a small piece of meat placed just inside the aviary door.  But she’s not alone – a young wild bird has spotted it too, and enters the cage. There’s an audible intake of breath from the hide.  Maybe the plan will work after all…

Photo: On the 9 of November 2017, the Government of Nepal and national and international conservation organisations released critically endangered white-rumped vultures in the first event of its kind in South Asia (by Bird Conservation Nepal)

Four of the aviary birds are now on the ground, squabbling with the intruder over the scrap of meat. Then, all of a sudden, it happens – a flash of yellow in the doorway.  The wing tag reads no. 13. Its owner struts the few short metres to join the group feeding on the main carcass. In doing so, she crosses the metal bar that marks the end of her life in captivity. It’s one small step for a vulture, one giant leap for vulture kind. Unbeknownst to vulture 13, her release signifies much more than just her individual freedom.

Saving vultures

White-rumped vultures (also known as Asian or Oriental white-backed vultures) are Critically Endangered. In the 15 years between 1992 and 2007, they suffered 99% declines in their population, not just in Nepal, but across the whole of their range in South Asia.  The reason was a drug called diclofenac, often given to sick and dying cows, but toxic to vultures. In Hindu culture, cows are sacred and their bodies are traditionally left for vultures and other scavengers. But cows treated with diclofenac shortly before death became deadly to the vultures that fed on their bodies.

Since this discovery in 2003, Bird Conservation Nepal and the RSPB have been working to make the environment safe for vultures again. The Government of Nepal banned the production, import and use of veterinary diclofenac back in 2006, but it has taken time and a lot of hard work to change perceptions, raise awareness, gain local and political support, and promote an alternative, vulture-safe treatment for cattle. Now, more than 10 years later, a provisional vulture-safe zone has been established in Nepal. This is the real reason for celebration today.  It is hoped that the release of vulture 13 and her compatriots heralds a new era for vultures in Nepal – one where they are safe from the threat of poisoning.

Photo: White-rumped vultures with yellow wing-tags (by Bird Conservation Nepal)

Back in the aviary, the other birds are quick to catch on. Gradually, one by one, they follow number 13’s lead. We take detailed notes from the hide as the birds come and go between the carcass and the aviary. They feed greedily, their crops visibly extended by the weight of the meat inside. They hold their own as they scrap with each other and the wild birds, over the juiciest morsels. But there’s still one test left - flight. This time, it’s bird number 10 who’s the star of the show. She stretches out her long wings. The sun glints on the tiny solar panels on her back, and you can just make out the tell-tale aerial protruding from her feathers. Each of our release birds is wearing a miniature bespoke backpack with a satellite transmitter that will allow us to track their progress as they make their way into wider world.

Then, pulling in her long neck and tilting her wings to the sky, she runs and flaps and we have lift off! She flies low to the ground, weighed down by the food in her crop, and lands in a small tree on the edge of the feeding area. It will take some time for her to build up her wing muscles to full strength. At the breeding centre, just three flaps were enough to get her from one side to the other, but in the wild, white-rumped vultures’ home ranges cover thousands of square kilometres.

Over the course of the next hour or so, four more of our vultures take to the wing and disperse in different directions. By this time, the shadows are growing long and the officials and dignitaries have long since departed. Just one bird remains in the aviary. Ironically, it’s our pioneer, number 13. Having had her fill, she retreated to the safety of a familiar perch to settle in for the night. As darkness falls, we slide the door shut once more to protect her from nocturnal predators. Tomorrow at dawn, she will have the chance of freedom again.

Over the coming days, weeks, months, and hopefully years, scientists from BCN and RSPB will follow the movements and fates of the released birds, as well as 11 wild birds that have also been fitted with satellite transmitters. In the end, only the vultures themselves will be able to reveal if Nepal truly has established an environment safe for vultures.

  • Great, great work, this really is addressing conservation “on the firing line” and succeeding. Treiffic stuff by BCN and RSPB.