KARACHI, Oct 31: In an effort to revive the population of vultures that has sharply gone down over the past 10 to 15 years in the country, a sanctuary for the species is being established in Nagarparkar, where the birds have recently been seen nesting, Dawn has learnt.
The conservation of the scavenger bird, according to experts, is important because, among other things, it prevents the spread of life-threatening diseases such as rabies and anthrax among animals and humans.
If there were no vultures, carcasses would decay and might lead to outbreak of tuberculosis, anthrax, foot-and-mouth diseases, the experts said.
?Nagarparkar remains the last stronghold of the two critically endangered vulture species in the country ? the long-billed vulture and the white-backed vulture. The long-billed vulture has always restricted to Nagarparkar, particularly Karoonjhar Hills, whereas the white-backed vulture is found in Punjab as well, its active nests are only found in Sindh,? said Uzma Khan, director of biodiversity looking after the vulture conservation project of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
She said that the organisation had planned to establish a safe zone for vultures where diclofenac ? a cheap widely available non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug commonly used in livestock in the Indian subcontinent for treatment of inflammation, pain, etc ? would not be used.
The use of diclofenac in animals has been reported to have led to a sharp decline in the vulture population in the Indian subcontinent; 95 per cent decline in 2003, 99.9pc decline as of 2008, according to the information available on the Internet.
She said that the people would be made aware of the ecological significance of vultures and campaigns would be initiated to encourage use of safe alternative drugs.
?Diclofenac is not banned in human practice and there is evidence that human formulations are used in animals. That is why we aim to engage more vets to control diclofenac in veterinary use,? she said.
Giving his input, Omair Shahid, who has been working with the WWF and has been to the project site many times, said that: ?Vultures are poisoned by diclofenac which causes immediate death when they eat carcasses of livestock that have been administered veterinary diclofenac?.
The necropsy of dead vultures showed that 80pc of adults, 63pc of sub-adults, 19pc of juveniles and 13pc of nestlings had visceral gout (a disease of birds in which kidney failure causes a build-up or urates in the internal organs) and this finding was consistent with the earlier reports from India.
The studies correlated visceral gout and renal failure with the presence of the residues of drug diclofenac.
Mr Shahid said that the vulture population in Nagarparkar was in a rehabilitating phase. The Egyptian vultures were also found there in large numbers during a recent visit.
?We found a small population of white-backed vultures nesting along with king vultures, long-billed and Egyptian vultures.
These birds could easily be identified in flight as the white-backed vulture and long-billed vulture have large wings and are high flyers,? he said, adding that the community response had so far been good as they had realised the importance of the birds and considered them as species beneficial for them.
There are, according to experts, nine species of vultures found in South Asia.
Four of the Gyps vulture species are only found in Asia. These are oriental white-backed vulture (Gyps benegalensis), long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus), slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) and Himalayan griffon vulture (Gyps himalayensis) and Eurasian Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) that breed in Eurasia but migrate to Africa and South Asia. The geographic range of these vultures overlaps.
The oriental white-backed vulture, he said, was once described as the commonest species of vultures found in the Indian subcontinent and was said to be the most widely distributed species in Pakistan existing in Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
However, studies conducted between 2000 and 2003 showed that Pakistan had a 50pc annual decrease in the white-backed vulture. Three colonies vanished completely in this period with populations of 421, 445 and 758 in Taunsa, Toawala and Changa Manga respectively. The rate of population decline in Pakistan was observed to be much higher than in India and the trend of population decline was also obvious in other species of vultures; long-billed vulture and slender-billed vulture, with status changed from ?vulnerable? to ?critically endangered?.
Some rough estimates based on the rapid decline suggested that the population of oriental white-backed vultures might go extinct in as little as five years.
?To save this species from extinction, the Gyps Vulture Restoration Project (GVRP) was initiated in 2005. The project focused on the conservation of the white-backed vulture, which is categorised as a critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN].
?Under the project, a vulture conservation centre was set up in Changa Manga with the aim to retain the current population along with a captive breeding programme,? said Uzma Khan.
Currently, 21 vultures are being raised at the breeding centre set up with the support of the Hawk Conservancy Trust.
In a recent survey conducted throughout Pakistan in the vulture breeding season from November 2010 to April 2011, a total of 457 Egyptian vultures, 167 Eurasian Griffon, 43 white-backed vultures, three king/black vultures, seven cinereous vultures, 55 long-billed vultures and 89 Himalayan griffon were seen across 77 sites in Pakistan. Replying to a question about the project success, Ms Khan said that active campaigning against the harmful chemical led to a governmental ban on the drug in 2008, besides initiating monitoring of vulture population in the wild and creating awareness of the issue.