Where have the vultures gone? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 29, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 29, 2012

Where have the vultures gone?

21 White-rumped vultures at Dumuria, near Khulna city, 2010 Photo: Naimul Islam

At the very beginning of the month (September 1) we also observed the International Vulture Awareness Day, along with others across the world. But to what effectiveness, is yet to be judged. The vulture is a big size bird of prey and also referred to as important scavenger. Previously, it was a commonly sighted and well-known bird in our country. But at present, it is not seen usually in locality dump sites with the exception of the zoo and some remote parts of the country. Vulture is a strong-bird that feeds on carrion. They have broad wings, riding on which they soar high while looking down for carrion. They have no feathers on head or neck, for which they look bit ugly, but are very gentle and simply harmless.
Bangladesh ornithology counted about seven species of vultures. They are Egyptian vulture, White-rumped vulture, Griffon vulture, Himalayan vulture, Slender-billed vulture, Cinereous vulture and Red-headed vulture. Egyptian vulture, Griffon vulture, Himalayan vulture, Cinereous vulture are vagrant to Bangladesh. Only two species -- White-rumped vulture and Slender-billed vulture -- are resident to Bangladesh while Red-headed vulture is extinct in the wild.
If someone would ask about the status of White-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis) in Bangladesh, the confident answerer would be it is 99 % declined and one percent surviving and the number is 800 (M.H. Khan). During my childhood in early 1992, I used to see hundreds of vultures at my village Hobinagar, Shaiestabad, Barisal along the river Arial Khan and Kirtonkhola. After that in 2008 I saw a pair of vultures on way to Tanguar Haor and lastly at Dumuria of Khulna in 2010 a group of 21 white-rumped vultures.
What's really happened to vultures? Poaching, habitat loss, lack of food or any environmental change are not all the real causes for vanishing of vultures. The most important cause of their disappearance is the veterinary use of pharmaceutical diclofenac, a widely used painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug administered to livestock and humans. Research on decline of vulture population in Pakistan by the Peregrine Fund, who joined forces with Washington State University and the Ornithological Society of Pakistan (OSP), has shown that the diclofenac can cause mortality in vultures. If a vulture feeds on a carcass which still contains diclofenac then it causes kidney failure of the vulture and in most cases it dies within 24-48 hours. By mid-2000, Gyps vultures were being found dead and dying in Nepal, Pakistan, and throughout India. The anti-inflammatory veterinary drug diclofenac, used to treat domestic livestock, identified as the cause of mortality, with renal failure resulting in visceral gout in the vast majority of examined vultures.
Gyps bengalensis occurs in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam, and may be extinct in southern China and Malaysia (BirdLife International 2001). It disappeared from most of South-East Asia in the early 20th century and the only viable populations in the region are found in Myanmar and Cambodia, mainly in the north (probably in low hundreds). This species qualifies as Critically Endangered because it has suffered an extremely rapid population decline primarily as a result of feeding on carcasses of animals treated with diclofenac. It occurs mostly in plains and less frequently in hilly regions where it utilizes light woodland, villages, cities, and opens areas. It feeds on carrion, both putrid and fresh. While feeding considerable aggregations can form, and regular communal roost sites are used. It is social and usually found in flocks. It breeds in colonies on tall trees, often near human habitation.
The International Vulture Awareness Day has grown from Vulture Awareness Days run by the Birds of Prey Programme in South Africa and the Hawk Conservancy Trust in England, who decided to work together and expand the initiative into an international event. On September 1st 2012, the aim was for each participating organization to carry out their own activities that highlight vulture conservation and awareness. According to BirdLife International, in 2006, the governments of India, Pakistan and Nepal introduced a ban on the manufacture of diclofenac and pharmaceutical firms are now encouraged to promote an alternative drug, meloxicam, which is proven to be safe for vultures. Recently Bangladesh also formally banned this drug. But it is still sold by pharmacies illegally to treat cattle.
Populations of three species of vultures have declined by more than 95 per cent in the last 10 years across the Indian subcontinent. The White-rumped vulture was once considered comparatively common and widely distributed in all districts of Bangladesh. Currently there are only a few breeding colonies known to occur in Bangladesh one in Maulvibazar near Hakaluki Haor where a group of 13-15 have been recorded along with a group of 15-20 in Nobigonj, Habigonj, a group of 20-30 at Dumurai, Khulna and a smaller group of 5-10 in Mymensingh. More than 97 per cent of vultures have disappeared from this region's skies in the past 15 years -- the fastest decline ever recorded in a bird population anywhere in the world. Only about 10,000 still exist in the wild in the sub-continent, down from millions in the 1980s.
Vultures also play a key role in the wider landscape providing ecosystem services, and were previously heavily relied upon to help dispose of animal and human remains in India. The government needs to develop an up to date action plan to conserve the species. We need also to support our conservation partners, showing farmers that there are alternative drugs to diclofenac that are just as effective in treating cattle.

The writer is a biodiversity specialist, CEGIS

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