All nine species of vulture found in south Asia are recorded in Nepal. Among them, six are resident (White-rumped, Slender-billed, Himalayan, Egyptian, Red-headed and Bearded vultures) two are winter visitors (Griffon and Cinereous vulture) and one species (Indian Vulture) is considered a vagrant. Before the 1990s, collectively they were the commonest birds to be seen in Nepal, comprising an estimated 500,000 individuals. However, during the 90s most resident species underwent rapid declines (>95%) and in the space of a few years, they became Nepal’s rarest group of birds, their estimated population reduced to just 20,000. Because of their rapid population declines, south Asia vulture species are listed as threatened birds on the IUCN Red List. Four species (White-rumped, Slender-billed, Indian and Red-headed Vulture) are listed as Critically Endangered, Egyptian Vulture is classed as Endangered, and three species (Bearded, Cinereous and Himalayan vultures) as Near-threatened.
Once the culprit – Diclofenac – was identified, conservationists in Nepal and worldwide played a vital role in saving these threatened birds by conducting various in-situ and ex-situ conservation activities throughout the vultures’ range. These activities included the establishment of community-managed vulture restaurants that provided ‘safe’ food (free from Diclofenac and other chemical contaminants); extensive education programmes; the establishment of vulture breeding centres; and the endorsement of a vulture conservation action plan. In line with this approach, on 5 June 2006 the Nepal government banned Diclofenac for the veterinary use. After 15 years of hard work by conservationists in Nepal, there is more than a glimmer of hope that we can safeguard the remaining vulture population; research has already found that the population of some species (e.g. White-rumped, Slender-billed and Himalayan vultures) are now more stable.
Although there has been a degree of success concerning vulture conservation in Nepal, there is no room for complacency. Existing conservation activities are limited to the particular geographical areas, and are much-focused in the southern lowland belts with only a few addressing issues in the ‘mid-hills’. In addition to Diclofenac, it has recently been found that other NSAID drugs (e.g. Nimesulide, Aceclofenac and Ketoprofen) are also toxic to vultures. And there are some other potential threats; these include collision and electrocution with the poorly-designed electric power distribution lines and poles; poisoning of the carcasses to exterminate carnivorous mammals, a practice that also kills vultures and other scavengers; and direct persecution.
Due to their apex position in the food chain as efficient scavengers, vultures provide a crucial role in the ‘ecosystem services’ they offer humankind. Vultures are nature’s cleaning crew, without whom the carcasses of many dead animals decompose where they fall. They have also been linked to the control of fatal human diseases: without vultures, populations of other ‘inefficient’ scavengers such as jackals and feral dogs are likely to increase, thereby elevating the threat of diseases like rabies and anthrax with resulting impacts on human misery and economic losses. Being integral to the sky-burial culture of Lama communities in the high Himalayas of Nepal, declining vulture populations are likely to have a negative impact on the social culture as well as the environment. Therefore, continued and much-intensified efforts to conserve vultures across the whole of Nepal is crucial. We all need to address the threats and save Nepalese vultures from the brink of extinction.