|IAATE Flyer - Dec 2011|
|Friday, 07 October 2011|
Here's an article I wrote for the IAATE Flyer last year. The International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (IAATE) of which I am a professional member, have supported our conservation efforts in Nepal by awarding us funds for the Pokhara Vulture Safe Zone project for two years running.
Vulture Safe Zone project - Pokhara
Can you imagine the world population drastically reduced over a 15 year period to that of Hong Kong? That would equate to a drop of approx 99.9% of the world’s population today. That's exactly what has happened to 4 of Asia's Vultures species, the White Backed Vulture, the Slender Billed Vulture and the Long Billed Vulture and now the Red Headed Vulture. In fact it's the fastest decline of any animal since the Dodo.
Many animal species have been lost over time and many others are on the brink of extinction today, we’re all aware of the problems facing the Tiger, the Panda and the Polar Bear. But how much do we really know about the vultures? But more so, how much do people really care? None are as vital to our eco-system as these majestic ancient raptors, and in the race towards extinction; Asia's vultures will get there first.
I first came to Nepal 10 years ago in an attempt to escape the rat race of London living. It was never my intention to stay and it certainly never crossed my mind that I would stumble upon something that would help save a dying species. My background as a falconer/bird trainer goes back almost 30 years. Falconry and hunting was my passion, but the conservation of these magnificent raptors was as important as the interactions I had with them in captivity. However, nothing prepares you for that feeling when you first share the sky with them and interact with them in their own environment. It's a mind-blowing experience, which is exactly what happened to me when I took a tandem Paragliding flight in the Himalayas. I immediately felt a connection to these aerial experts and together with a friend came up with a plan to train some raptors to fly with us, and even guide us through the sky.
Now 10 years on, what started out as an experiment has gone on to be a very effective way to raise awareness and funds for vital vulture conservation projects in Nepal.
Parahawking, as it's known, is essentially Paragliding with trained birds of prey. By harnessing their natural instinct to conserve energy when they fly, we are able to train our birds to fly with us, and even guide us to the thermal updrafts. We offer this experience as a Tandem Paragliding flight and money raised from these flights goes directly towards vulture conservation projects in Nepal.
I first heard about the decline of Asia's vultures in 2003, but at that time little was known as to why. By 2004 it was established that the cause was a commonly used veterinary drug called Diclofenac. This very effective non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug had been routinely administered to sick and dying livestock to alleviate pain and suffering. In Hindu countries cows are sacred, sick or aging animals are not humanely euthanized but treated with drugs to prolong their life. However, the widespread use of Diclofenac was to have dire consequences. Vultures that were feeding from cow carcasses that had been treated with Diclofenac were dying, in there millions. In fact in the last 15 years, over 40 million birds across India, Nepal and Pakistan have died mainly due to liver and kidney failure caused by Diclofenac.
Thankfully the manufacture and distribution of Diclofenac as a veterinary drug was banned in 2006 but the problem remained, vultures were still declining at up to 50% a year. Thousands of tones of the killer drug was still in circulation, a generation of farmers, landowners and breeders had relied on this "miracle drug" for years, why should they stop using it now, after all, who really cares about the vultures?
Vultures play a vital role in our eco-system as nature’s cleaners. The potential loss of these species has profound ecological and social consequences throughout Asia. Millions of tonnes of cow carcasses are disposed of every year across Asia with the vultures playing a vital role by rapidly disposing the dead matter that could otherwise pose a risk of disease. Their decline has also seen a dramatic increase in feral dog numbers, which pose a real risk to human health and safety.
With Diclofenac now banned across Asia, leading international conservation groups set about preventing further declines. Vulture Safe Zones are an effective way to protect existing populations of vultures. They are essentially feeding sites where Diclofenac free food is provided to the birds. But they are much more than just an easy meal. Through a program of education and advocacy, Diclofenac is completely removed from an area whilst promoting the use of Meloxicam, the vulture safe alternative. Once an area is deemed to be Diclofenac free, it is declared a Diclofenac Free Zone. Only then can safe food be provided.
Vulture Safe Zone's in Nepal are community run projects which means that the community learn to appreciate the importance of the vultures, passing this knowledge on to future generations. There is also a financial incentive. Communities can benefit from land rental and tourism, as witnessing the feeding frenzy of up to 100 vultures from a distance of 50 yards inside a purpose built hide is an incredible sight.
There are now several Vulture Safe Zones in Nepal and they are all proving to be a success. Whilst vultures are almost disappearing in other parts of Nepal, birds can still be seen around the Pokhara valley. So it's important to protect these birds from further declines. Parahawking and Himalayan Raptor Rescue are able to contribute to the Pokhara Vulture Safe Zone project by donating funds raised through Parahawking flights and other sources. The IAATE conservation grant took our total contribution to $7500 USD last year. This was enough to pay for the construction of the observation hide.
6 months on and progress is being made. Land has been secured from the local community, a cow shed and grazing area has been established to house the aging livestock, the feeding site and observation hide has been constructed and the education program is well under way. But most importantly the vultures are there, in fairly large numbers, in fact around 40-50 birds are regularly seen on every feed. White Backed Vultures, Himalayan Griffon Vultures, Red Headed Vultures, Slender Billed Vultures, Egyptian Vultures and Cinerous Vultures can all been seen around this Vulture Safe Zone.
Whilst the early signs are encouraging, there is still much more work to be done, they currently do not have a cart to transport the carcasses to the vulture feeding area; there are not enough large trees for vulture roosts; they don’t have a way to get drinking water to the cows, and they would like to have viewing telescopes at the observation building.
Parahawking and Himalayan Raptor Rescue will continue working with the community to help solve these issues. Additional and continued funding will be required to maintain the project and aid in future developments. But this is a small price to pay to save the vultures from potential extinction. As without them, the cost to the environment and our eco-system would be far greater than we could possible imagine.
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