5 methods we've helped vultures over the previous 5 years
Five years have passed since BirdLife International made an announcement that sent shock waves through the conservation community: Africa's vultures are on a steep slide towards extinction. A total of six of the eleven species of vulture in Africa were classified in a category with a higher risk of extinction. This reflects the sharp decline in populations reminiscent of the catastrophic collapse of the Asiatic vultures in the 1990s.
Although the reasons for the population collapse varied from continent to continent, the end result would be the same if no action were taken. the disappearance of one of the world's most charismatic and well-known groups of birds from our skies and the loss of the precious ecological benefits that these efficient scavengers offer.
While the situation remains difficult, important progress has been made, both on the ground and in raising awareness of the plight of the vultures. When our first campaign to save African vultures began in 2015, global awareness and political recognition of these majestic birds of prey was still in its infancy. Discover just a few examples of the fantastic successes BirdLife supporters have had at launch and find out how we can take our actions to the next level with your help.
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1. Vulture-proof zones in Nepal and beyond
Everyone needs a safe space, and vultures are no exception. One of the main causes of the catastrophic decline in vultures in Asia is veterinary diclofenac – a pain reliever that is widely used on farm animals, but which is fatal to vultures that eat their carcasses. In the 1990s, 99% of vultures on the Indian subcontinent were wiped out by the drug. In order to prevent further tragedies, our partner Bird Conservation Nepal has set up a network of "Vulture Safe Zones" within the SAVE consortium (Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction), in which the commitment and interest representation of the community was used to end veterinary sales of diclofenac was banned in 2006 but was still available in many stores.
This strategy was accompanied by a community program called Jatayu Restaurant, which included buying older cattle at the end of their working lives and saving people from feeding or abandoning an animal that would otherwise be a nuisance – especially since the large Hindu population of Nepal respects and has cattle a strong cultural appreciation for cows. The cattle are allowed to live out their natural life comfortably and then provide the urgently needed non-toxic food for vultures. Up to 150 vultures were spotted feasting at the same time in Nepal's “vulture restaurants”.
The results soon became apparent. A study published earlier this year found that the numbers of slender-billed Tenuirostris vultures began to rise in 2012. The lawsuit against White Vulture Gyps bengalensis followed in 2013. Covert examinations in pharmacies showed that the sale of diclofenac was also successfully discontinued by the time. Then, in a milestone in the history of conservation in 2017, six captive reared white-backed vultures were released into a wilderness that could be truly vulture-proof for the first time in decades. Today the number has risen to thirty vultures and they have traveled widely since then.
Vultures are long-range foragers who don't stay in just one country, and the vulture-safe zone model has been introduced across Asia. This month in Haryana, India, BNHS (BirdLife in India) released eight captive reared white-backed vultures. Like their Nepalese counterparts, they have been fitted with satellite tags to monitor their movements, health and survival. The concept will also be adapted for Africa, where the first vulture safety zones have already been declared. BirdWatch Zambia (BirdLife partner) has led the indictment with growing numbers across the country and more in the pipeline. The model has also spread to Zimbabwe, South Africa and other countries. Participating landowners have agreed to stop using poison to bait carcases and engage in faith-based use, with an emphasis on awareness and positive news.
2. Fast-acting vulture rescue protocols in Kenya
The problems of the African vulture are more diverse. In Kenya, where the human population has frequent contact with wild animals, farmers can use poisoned bait to kill predators such as lions that may have taken their livestock. The vultures that feed on these carcasses are in turn poisoned. But if people act quickly, hundreds of vultures can be saved.
In 2016, Nature Kenya (BirdLife Partner), in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service and The Peregrine Fund, introduced a rapid response protocol that allows a poisoned carcass to be detected and disposed of before it can cause further deaths. They trained 89 rangers in the Masai Mara to deal with the source of the poisoning, get veterinary help for sick animals and even gather evidence to find and prosecute perpetrators. The rangers trained 117 other colleagues and shared their knowledge far and wide.
To get the word out, Nature Kenya launched a large-scale advertising campaign. In villages on the other side of the Mara, rangers regularly attended barazas (village meetings) to talk to locals. Performance groups like the Buffalo Dancers attracted attention at markets and a documentary about Vanishing Vultures was broadcast on national television. At every opportunity, residents were told who to contact and what to do if they witnessed poisoning.
Almost immediately, the campaign proved invaluable: researchers, rangers and members of the local community called the Rapid Response Department multiple times, each time saving hundreds of vultures. In addition, the poisoning itself became less common. From 2017 to 2019, the proposed poisoning of two lions was averted, and overall vulture poisoning in the Masai Mara decreased by more than 50%.
3. landmark political resolution on vulture-toxic drugs
BirdLife has campaigned for a number of years in promoting strict intergovernmental policy on the veterinary use of diclofenac and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that could also be fatal to vultures. Finally, in February of this year, a resolution adopted by the UN Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) looked at their use and regulation like never before and offered new hope.
The resolution, which was adopted at the thirteenth CMS Conference of the Parties, set out four key actions that reflect exactly what we have requested: testing all existing veterinary NSAIDs to determine which are harmful to vultures and which are safe; Revocation of licenses for vulture-poisonous licenses; Safety review of new veterinary NSAIDs prior to approval; and identifying and promoting safe alternative drugs.
According to Roger Safford, Senior Program Manager in BirdLife's Prevention of Extinction Program, safety testing of both new and existing NSAIDs is particularly important: “We need to screen all veterinary anti-inflammatories and withdraw those that are toxic to vultures. If we replace diclofenac with another drug that is just as toxic to vultures, then we just keep the problem going. "
Once we know which drugs are harmful, vulture state governments can ban their use of livestock and suggest safe alternatives. Our next step is to make sure that governments honor this commitment to the powerful pharmaceutical lobby. This could be difficult – despite knowing the risks, several European countries approved diclofenac for use in farm animals in 2014. Such a precedent increases the chances of a similar approval in Africa. However, we know we are up to the task. In 2017, in the face of intense lobbying by pharmaceutical companies, BNHS and SAVE convinced the Indian government to uphold the ban on large vials of diclofenac that had been misused for veterinary purposes.
4. Significantly improved public and political awareness
Be honest – what were your first impressions of vultures? Eerie harbingers of death? Tough, common scavengers who can fend for themselves? In the past five years, vultures have seen tremendous image transformations across a variety of sectors. In science, new research resulted in 15 vultures being classified as globally threatened on the IUCN Red List. Most of them were also included in Appendix I of the CMS, which placed an additional obligation on governments to protect them. Numerous studies have expanded our understanding of these fascinating creatures and how we can best help them.
On a political level, speaking out for vultures at high profile meetings has resulted in promising breakthroughs. In 2017, the CMS parties adopted a multi-species Afro-Eurasian vulture action plan that BirdLife helped develop. This action plan provides a roadmap for businesses, landowners, NGOs and governments in all 128 African and Eurasian vulture states, outlining the steps to take to protect all 15 threatened species.
In 2019, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) added West African vultures to its top priority list due to the trade in vulture parts. They set up a working group to study this pressing problem and propose measures to combat it. Many of these actions are based on the Multi-Species Action Plan above.
But sometimes the awareness raising can boil down to something as simple as social media. Our global #LoveVultures campaign showed off the intelligence and beauty of these raptors, as well as the vital cleaning services they perform for us. Every positive image we post there helps to increase the public's sympathy and concern for these creatures.
5. The next step: fight illegal trade
It was only when we expanded our work to West Africa that we became aware of the real impact of the illegal trade on vulture populations. Here, vulture body parts are often sold for "faith-based use," in unfortunately misinformed attempts to treat a range of physical and mental illnesses or to bring good luck. In fact, 29% of vulture deaths in Africa can be traced back to this practice. This will be our next challenge, and the BirdLife partnership is already a challenge.
In May 2019, our partner, the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), started a new nationwide project to end vulture poaching. Birdlife in Africa announced ambitious plans to reduce the illegal wildlife trade in Nigeria by 20% by 2021. This is a particularly pressing problem as the wildlife trafficking has become the country's second largest source of criminal income after drug trafficking. Demand in Nigeria is not only decimating the vulture populations in Nigeria, it is also putting pressure on the vultures of neighboring countries. In addition, the citizens risk ingesting remains of poisoned vultures.
Fortunately, attendance at the kick-off conference was extremely broad, including practicing practitioners, academics, law enforcement, hunting associations and the media – evidence that Nigeria has a strong constituency dedicated to vulture protection.
Next, NCF began working directly with traditional healers and holding workshops to raise awareness of the plight of vultures and promote herbal alternatives to vulture parts. To date, more than 80 traditional healers have participated in these workshops. The aim is to produce a handbook on wildlife-friendly medical practices that will be published in the respective national languages. According to the NCF, participants are now openly using herbal alternatives and encouraging more healers to do the same. NCF has created a social media group to promote and share experiences with vulture-proof options.
BirdLife's work on vulture poisoning in collaboration with other organizations was made possible by membership in the Restore Species partnership, which prevents extinction from illegal and unsustainable trade and hunting, as well as poisoning.
Much of the work reported here, especially but not only in Asia by the SAVE consortium, was supported both technically and financially by the RSPB BirdLife in Great Britain.
BirdLife International would like to thank everyone who has supported our vulture work over the years including:
Pamela and Neville Isdell and Cara Isdell-Lee, the Isdell Family Foundation, the AG Leventis Foundation, the Tasso Leventis Foundation, the BirdLife Rare Bird Club, the BirdLife Species Champions for African Vultures: Sean Dennis and Barry Sullivan, the BAND Foundation, the Fondation Segré, US Fish and Wildlife Service, EU LIFE +, supporters of the BirdLife Gala Dinners – Japan, Champions of the Flyway and of course the many supporters who responded to our appeals.