KATHMANDU — As dawn breaks over the forest in the Kawasoti area on the edge of Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, early risers can catch a glimpse of rare vultures roosting in their nests perched in the tall trees.
This was the sight Ankit Bilas Joshi, vulture conservation program manager at the NGO Bird Conservation Nepal, expected to see on the morning of March 13. But the scene in the forest that day was different. The adult birds of prey weren’t in the treetops: they were lying motionless on the ground, their wings outspread and insects buzzing around their lifeless bodies.
When Joshi and local residents looked around, they discovered six dead white-rumped vultures (Gyps bengalensis), a critically endangered species. “We also found the corpse of a golden jackal [Canis aureus] nearby,” Joshi told Mongabay. “Looking at the corpse of the jackal, we believe that it was poisoned by the local community using rodent poison.”
The alleged poisoning incident came on the heels of an international Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) meeting in the area, where international delegates applauded the success of community-led programs such as “vulture restaurants” that provide a safe source of food for the birds.
Initiatives like these came about following the South Asia vulture crisis of the 1990s, when vultures in the region died in massive numbers from feeding on the corpses of cattle that had been treated with the livestock painkiller diclofenac.
Conservationists in Nepal and India say they believe the crisis is tapering off, with both countries having banned the use and sale of diclofenac. However, other forms of poisoning of vultures are fast emerging as the next major challenge in Nepal, official records show.
According to data compiled by Krishna Bhusal, a member of the Vulture Specialist Group at the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, there were 204 reported cases of mass vulture deaths between May 2010 and 2021.
Although only a tenth of these were cases of poisoning, they accounted for 211 vultures that either died or were severely injured as a result. The findings by Bhusal and his team form part of a study that’s due to be published soon.
“A single poisoned carcass can kill dozens of vultures as they feed in large groups,” Joshi said. “We are concerned that more vultures may have died eating the poisoned carcass of the golden jackal.”
Bhusal agreed, saying the impacts ripple out beyond the birds that feed directly on the poisoned carcass. “The adult vultures feed their young ones by throwing up, and this means that if it consumes poisoned food, the poison gets transferred to the young ones as well,” he said.
A day after Joshi made his gruesome discovery near Chitwan, two more vultures were found dead in the area, with officials connecting their deaths to the poisoned jackal incident.
For conservationists like Joshi and Bhusal, the deaths are reminiscent of the diclofenac crisis, when the vulture population in Nepal plunged from around 1-1.6 million to just 20,000 today, according to Bird Conservation Nepal estimates. Nepal banned the drug in 2006, but the vulture recovery has been slow; the birds typically lay just one egg a year.
Nepal is home to nine vulture species, eight of which are threatened or near-threatened according to IUCN Red List criteria: the white-rumped vulture, slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris), red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus) and Indian vulture (Gyps indicus) are listed as critically endangered; the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is endangered; and the bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), cinerous vulture (Aegypius monachus) and Himalayan griffon (Gyps himalayensis) are near threatened. The ninth species, the Eurasian griffon (Gyps fulvus), which visits the country during the winter, is considered a species of least concern.
“With a ban on the sale and use of [diclofenac] in India and Nepal, vulture populations are believed to be increasing in the region,” Bhusal said. “However, poisoning, usually not targeted at vultures, has emerged as one of the biggest threats for the species.”
In most of the poisoning cases, people are found to have targeted other species rather than vultures, as in the recent case of the golden jackal. However, the vultures that eat the poisoned carcass end up also being affected. According to data compiled by Bhusal, Himalayan griffons and white-rumped vultures are the species worst affected by poisoning.
Several incidents across the country have shown that although it’s illegal to do so, people continue to poison animals such as feral dogs, leopards, jackals and jungle cats that attack livestock and cause them economic harm.
In April 2021, 71 vultures of various species were found dead in the central district of Nawalparasi, near the remains of two dogs that were believed to have been poisoned by residents. The carcasses of two other dogs were also recovered from a sack nearby. Similar incidents were reported in 2020, when 19 white-rumped vultures were found to have eaten poisoned carcasses.
Various studies as well as experiences from different programs in Nepal have shown that vaccination and neutering are the best available means to control the population of feral dogs. However, such programs haven’t received the attention of municipal authorities in Nepal, who themselves have been found to be involved in poisoning dogs.
In the case of jackals and wild cats attacking livestock, officials point to compensation and insurance schemes to ease the economic burden on local communities. However, they also acknowledge that such schemes haven’t been effective, with people having to navigate a large amount of red tape just to get their compensation. This experience often compels them to take desperate measures such as retaliatory killing of wild predators.
“We understand that human-wildlife conflict is one of the biggest challenges to conservation,” said Maheshwar Dhakal, director-general of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. “We are trying to make the process of getting compensation easier and quicker, but the government also has its limited financial resources.”
He added that some private insurance companies are pioneering products to help ease the burden on local communities, but that too has a long way to go.
Bhusal said there need to be programs to make people aware about the consequences of using poison, especially on the vulture population in areas where incidents of poisoning are high. He said there needs to be some control over people’s access to poisons.
Back on the outskirts of Chitwan, as the investigation into the latest mass poisoning incident proceeds, Joshi is keeping a close eye on the vulture nests to see if the chicks are showing signs of poisoning.
“As of now we haven’t seen any signs that they also ingested the poison,” he said. But with increasing incidents of poisoning, it may not be that long before they, too, face the same fate, conservationists warn.
This article by Abhaya Raj Joshi was first published by Mongabay.com on 16 March 2023. Lead Image: Vultures bask in the sun in Nawalparasi, Nepal.
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