A Long-billed vulture | Photos by WWF-Pakistan / Zahoor Salmi
A Long-billed vulture | Photos by WWF-Pakistan / Zahoor Salmi

Abundant and healthy animal carcasses and a suitable habitat with an undisturbed area to lay eggs is all that the vultures in South Asia ask for to thrive.

Of the nine South Asian species of this large ungainly bird, eight are found in Pakistan. These include the Oriental White-backed vulture, the Long-billed vulture, the Red-headed vulture, the Egyptian vulture, the Cinereous vulture, the Lammergeier, the Himalayan Griffon vulture and the Eurasian griffon vulture.

However, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has placed three of these species on the ‘critically endangered’ list of threatened species. Of these three, the White-backed and the Long-billed vultures are both found in Tharparkar, Sindh.

A new study, The Status of Vultures Sindh Population Baseline Survey 2019-20, has blamed “a growing road network, increase in human and livestock population and coal and stone mining, [and] power plants” as some of the reasons for the vanishing of this bird from Tharparkar district — the most important habitat for this bird.

Conservation experts weigh in on the declining population of vultures in Sindh, how to save their prime habitat in Tharparkar and the importance of these scavengers in our ecosystem

The importance of vultures can be gauged by the fact that these birds consume carcasses and clean them to the bone within minutes. Without vultures, these carcasses would rot and be taken over by diseases such as anthrax and botulism, say experts.

The two-year study, released in September this year, was carried out by the IUCN, in partnership with the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company (SECMC), the Sindh Wildlife Department and Baanhn Beli, a local non-governmental organisation. The aim of the study was to estimate the current status of vulture species in Sindh; to obtain more information on the causes of vulture decline in the province and to suggest conservation measures based on the findings.

The study (with summer and winter visits), was initially restricted to Tharparkar district (with the Karoonjhar hills at Nagarparkar, and the irrigated part of the desert of Nara), but was later expanded to include all districts of Sindh, including cities such as Karachi, Hyderabad and Larkana, as well as the Kirthar range and Gorakh hills.

The World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-P) disagrees with the numbers quoted by the IUCN survey.

Jamshed Iqbal Chaudhry, senior manager of research and conservation at WWF-P, says, “We conducted population monitoring surveys in the vulture-safe zones in March 2020 [2019-20 during breeding season] and found 288 Long-billed vultures including 189 adults, 24 sub-adults and 75 chicks. A total of 75 active nests of Long-billed vultures were also observed in Karoonjhar hills. However, the IUCN vulture study cited only 50 Long-billed vultures in the Thar Desert, including Umerkot and Karoonjhar hills, during the breeding season [2019-20]. There are also some unclear figures about the active nests of vultures in the IUCN report.” Chaudhry has been conducting such surveys regularly since 2002.

Numbers notwithstanding, IUCN’s Naveed Soomro says the organisation wants to initiate a long-term vulture conservation project involving the local community of the Nagarparkar and Islamkot sub-divisions of Tharparkar, to save trees from being lopped and to preserve active vulture nests.

Diclofenac — A Death Sentence For Vultures

Egyptian vulture
Egyptian vulture

Back in the mid 1990s, it was found that the veterinary painkiller diclofenac, a non-steroid anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) used to treat cattle and goats, was the cause of death in vultures. Feeding on a carcass contaminated with NSAIDs caused gout in vultures, resulting in their death.

In 2006, the drug was banned in Pakistan. However, its human derivative is sold at veterinary shops all over Sindh. Chaudhry terms the drug as the “biggest reason” for the decline in vulture population in the province. According to a 2012 study by The Peregrine Fund, only 15 percent of storekeepers are aware of the ban or of the harm the drug does to vultures.

Dr Shehryar Alvi, a veterinarian and product manager at Hilton Pharmaceuticals, that makes veterinary and human medicines, says the manufacture of diclofenac has already tapered due to the ban on its use.

Instead, its alternative, meloxicam, a “safer and cheaper medicine”, is widely available and also being used. The study did find availability of this drug but “to a limited extent” in Nagarparkar and Islamkot.

Production of veterinary diclofenac may have been terminated, but there are other NSAIDs — aceclofenac, ketoprofen, flunixin, ibuprofen and phenylbutazone — that are used to treat livestock, and that are as harmful for vultures.

“Because quack animal doctors and herders have long been prescribing and using the human form, with their animals getting well, it is difficult to bring about a change in this practice,” says Dr Alvi, adding that “sensitisation of this change would require extensive work in the field.”

He is hopeful that “if the villagers are explained that meloxicam is not only a better and safer medicine prepared especially for animals, but cheaper too, they may be more amenable to the change.”

However, the decline in vulture population is not new and has been going on since the mid-1990s.

After the ban of diclofenac in 2006, there was a noticeable increase in the population of the Long-billed vulture in Karoonjhar hills, claims Chaudhry. But the numbers of the Oriental White-backed vultures continue to decline, particularly in Tharparkar. “They may have migrated from the breeding colony in Nagarparkar or some genetic variation within this species may have occurred,” he surmises.

Of the nine South Asian species of this large ungainly bird, eight are found in Pakistan. These include the Oriental White-backed vulture, the Long-billed vulture, the Red-headed vulture, the Egyptian vulture, the Cinereous vulture, the Lammergeier, the Himalayan Griffon vulture and the Eurasian griffon vulture.

Food Shortage?

Even if vultures do not die from consuming a contaminated carcass, could the decline in vulture population be because there is not enough food available in their habitat?

The IUCN study found vultures competing for food with a huge population of stray dogs. In addition, when an animal dies, the locals sell off its skin, meat and even bones, which are used by industries such as tanneries, chicken feed mills and bone crushing factories.

However, WWF-P’s spokesperson rejects the food insecurity angle. “We do not think that there is insecurity of food for vultures in Tharparkar,” says Chaudhry. Vultures can “fly hundreds of miles in search of food,” he explains. In his opinion, it is human activity in the vulture habitat that has been detrimental in the conservation and protection of the birds.

Guggul (Commiphora wightii), a critically endangered medicinal shrub is found in the Karoonjhar hills of Nagarparkar, the primary habitat for vultures. “For the last couple of decades, Guggul has extensively been extracted for its resin, from the month of November until the end of May. This time period is also breeding season for Long-billed vultures,” the WWF-P spokesperson points out.

During this period, the locals stay in the hills and unintentionally destroy the birds’ nests and break their eggs. “The disturbance caused by the extraction of Guggul resin poses a persistent threat to the survival of vultures breeding in Karoonjhar hills,” claims Chaudhry.

Habitat Destruction

Long-billed vulture
Long-billed vulture

The decline in grazing grounds in Thar in proportion to the increased demand for fodder due to increased livestock population (the current population of livestock in Tharparkar is 7,019,636 compared to 4,593,598 in 2010, according to the provincial livestock department), cutting down of trees like acacia and kandi (on which vultures nest), and a general lack of awareness about the importance of the conservation and protection of this bird has aggravated the situation.

The IUCN study found a link between the lopping of trees and vulture mortality, particularly the Gyps species. Vulture nests built on high-tension power transmission towers were found in areas where trees suitable for nesting had been badly lopped — especially during the four-year drought in Tharparkar that led to the drying out of grasslands.

Chaudhry agrees with this assessment, saying the loss of habitat “probably” contributes to the decline of vultures.

Coal Miners and the Vultures

But why are coal miners interested in protecting vultures?

Abul Fazal Rizvi, the chief executive officer of the SECMC explains that the company’s environmental management plan, issued by the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency, requires it to ensure there would be “no trapping, hunting of vultures” and no disturbance to existing nests in Block 2, where the company is mining coal.

“We needed to save the population of this magnificent and iconic desert bird,” says Rizvi and, therefore, joined hands with IUCN to “initiate a baseline survey for vultures in Thar.” The study was thus funded by the Engro Coal Mining Company.

The SECMC’s mine covers about eight sq km of the entire 100 sq km area of Block 2.  “Tharparkar area is 15,000 sq kms and our area of operation is about 80 kms away from the known habitat of vultures in the Nagarparkar region and poses absolutely no threat to vultures there,” claims Rizvi.

However, WWF-P’s Chaudhry holds a different view. While conceding that no study has been conducted so far to find the impact of mining on vultures in Tharparkar, he says, the “presence and adverse effects of lead in vultures, due to coal mining, has been established in scientific studies published in other parts of the world.”

Coal extraction not only causes air and water pollution, it requires significant clearing of land, resulting in habitat destruction.

An Oriental White-backed vulture, found in Nagarparkar
An Oriental White-backed vulture, found in Nagarparkar

On the other hand, he says, the SECMC has “improved [the] state of vultures in Thar as the Gorano lake has become a new habitat of vultures.” Gorano is “a man-made wetland” which has “emerged as a new habitat for migratory birds.”

Rizvi also lists other nature conservation projects his company is carrying out: the ‘million tree plantation’, the introduction of bio-saline agriculture, and the setting up of a bio-saline fish farm. In addition, it is funding a comprehensive baseline study of the flora and fauna of Tharparkar, also being conducted by IUCN. He hopes this will help develop “realistic and focused plans” for community-led conservation initiatives in the district.

The Way Forward

The IUCN study recommends urgent action for the conservation of vultures. Chaudhry suggests setting up of more vulture-safe zones, like those established by the WWF-P in Nagarparkar, free of diclofenac, “with support for stricter monitoring.”

But more importantly, Chaudhry recommends the Karoonjhar hills and its surrounding areas should be declared a national park, limiting the amount of commercial work in the area.

This seems to be resonating with at least some in power. “The ministry will be very supportive as it is encouraging conservation, especially at fragile and unique ecological sites,” says Naheed Shah Durrani, secretary of the Ministry of Climate Change.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 13th, 2020

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