In a shocking and tragic incident, 69 vultures have died of inadvertent poisoning in Nepal on April 24. The deaths occurred in the farmlands of the terai where villagers had used poisoned bait to kill stray dogs. These carcasses were then eaten by vultures who succumbed to the poison.
As many as 35 white-rumped vultures, one slender-billed vulture (both critically endangered species), 31 Himalayan griffons and two cinereous vultures (classified as near threatened) succumbed to the poison. One Himalayan griffon is still alive and under treatment. All the birds were wild ones and not released birds from the nearby vulture release site.
The deaths occurred just 50 km from the main vulture release site in Nawalparasi district where endangered vulture species are bred and then released into the wild. For the vultures to die because of bait poisoning near a conservation breeding site makes the deaths all the more poignant and highlights the dangers that these birds (and indeed all wildlife) face on a daily basis from humans.
Nepal has strongly supported the fight against the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) that have decimated vulture populations and brought the species close to extinction. Like in other places, it was diclofenac, the vulture toxic, anti-inflammatory drug, that had decimated Nepal’s vulture population since the 1990s. But the Nepalese government removed diclofenac from veterinary use. To save these birds, India, Nepal and Pakistan banned the manufacture of veterinary formulations of diclofenac in 2006.
Ishana Thapa, CEO, Bird Conservation Nepal, said: “We have been working to save vultures in Nepal for almost 20 years now. The progress in breeding the birds over the past three years and the wild vulture population showing significant increases in recent years have encouraged us that we, together with all involved in the vulture team, are on the right track. But events like this are a big worry and we need to do more to ensure this kind of event isn’t repeated.”
Chris Bowden, Programme Manager, Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction ( SAVE ), and Co-chair of the IUCN Vulture Specialist Group, said: “We know that the threat of poison baits is the biggest single challenge to vulture populations worldwide. Usually when people try to poison dogs or large carnivores, they accidentally kill vultures. Although diclofenac and other veterinary drugs used on cattle have had the biggest negative impact on vultures across Asia, and this issue still urgently needs more work, addressing the poison baits threat does need more attention. We can learn from other regions, notably Africa, how it is being addressed elsewhere.”
Within hours of the deaths, officials from the municipality, the police, the Forest Division, Livestock and Veterinary office, the National trust for Nature Conservation, Nepal, and Bird Conservation Nepal reached the site before the carcasses could be disposed of. Photographs and tissue samples were taken from the birds to firmly establish the cause of death before the vulture and dog carcasses were buried. A crime scene report has been filed and further investigation has been launched. Samples are being tested at the National Forensic Science Laboratory in Kathmandu. The Wildlife Crime Control Bureau of Nepal is also looking into this incident.
Unfortunately, there have been similar events involving slightly fewer birds in India in recent months, notably events in West Bengal and Assam. Sadly, the illegal sale of diclofenac continues in India as was proved by an undercover investigation led by a group of respected environmental organisations and universities (“Vultures in India still vulnerable”, Frontline , January 1, 2021).Members of the research team visited pharmacies from 2012 to 2017 and asked for drugs to treat their injured cows, buying the first drug that was offered. The investigation found that cattle carcasses across India continued to be found with high levels of diclofenac and it was also found in dead vultures. Their findings were published in the journal Bird Conservation International .