|IAATE Flyer - Jan 2012|
|Wednesday, 16 May 2012|
Here's an article I wrote for the January 2012 IAATE Flyer. 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
“That’s What Friends Are For”
3 weeks ago, we rescued a rather large and beautiful Himalayan Griffon Vulture (Gyps himalayensis) shackled to a pile of steel reinforced building material in the courtyard of a hotel in the busy tourist area of Lakeside, Pokhara, Nepal. The exact story of how this bird ended up there is a bit sketchy, but from what we could gather, it had come down to feed then whilst attempting to fly away was subjected to an onslaught of rocks thrown by local kids. Luckily she was ‘saved’ by some workers from the hotel. We arrived at the scene, quickly evaluated the situation, untied the poor bird and began to leave, thinking that this is what we were called there to do. As we were about to leave, a hotel worker began insisting that we could not take the bird and that he wanted money. It was clear then that he had not ‘saved’ her for compassionate reasons but purely for financial gain.
A week later a horse died in a nearby field close to the busy tourist area of Lakeside. Within hours, there were a 100 + vultures feeding from the carcass. It was quite the sight, especially as there were at least 30 White-rumped Vultures (Gyps bengalensis) feeding. White-rumped Vultures have declined by up to 99.9% in recent years so to see them at all is a privilege. By the afternoon, the carcass was stripped to the bone and surrounded by several satisfied vultures with crops bulging. Many had left but a few were unable to take off, too full to fly. That evening two teenagers came to our rescue center holding a Himalayan Griffon Vulture wrapped in a potato sack. The story was they had 'saved' it from a baying mob of kids with rocks and sticks.
The following day, one of the last remaining vultures from the horse carcass had been trying to fly away. It finally managed to get airbourne but flew only a few hundred meters. Unfortunately it landed down by the lake among a bunch of grown men. It was quickly surrounded, captured, tied to a rock, fired at with slingshots and then beaten over the head with a canoe paddle. Luckily we got there in the nick of time and saved it from a certain death blow to the head. We were met with angry men claiming that we could not take the bird. Later that evening, two of the men came to our rescue center brandishing the very slingshots that rendered the bird incapacitated, demanding that we return her or pay them money. I won't go into detail as to what I said to them or what I did with the slingshots.
These are just three separate examples but they are by no means isolated cases. I'm convinced similar incidences are occurring across Nepal and India.
In the last 15 years, we have lost up to 99.9% of four species of Asia's vulture: the White Backed Vulture, Long-billed Vulture (Gyps indicus), Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) and now the Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus); it's now at a crisis point. Extinction is literally around the corner. These figures are shocking and almost unbelievable but they are based on scientific evidence and should not be refuted.
Diclofenac is the cause, a now banned non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. For the last 15 years, Diclofenac was routinely administered to livestock, such as cows, a holy animal in Hindu culture, to alleviate pain and suffering and to prolong the life of working animals. Certain species of Gyps vulture are highly susceptible to the drug causing renal failure and death if ingested. At it's height of use, approximately 10% of all cow carcasses across the Indian subcontinent contained traces of Diclofenac. Its estimated that about 4% of cow carcasses still have traces of the drug, causing continual declines of up to 40% per year.
Why is the drug still out there? The ban in 2006 of the sale, distribution and use of Diclofenac as a veterinary drug should surely have halted the drop in numbers? But old habits die hard in Asia, local farmers are still able to purchase and use Diclofenac, which is easily obtainable in the human form from any high street pharmacist. However there is a global conservation effort to discourage the use of Diclofenac in any form and to promote the use of the vulture safe alternative, Meloxicam.
But is this the only solution? Are we able to prevent the extinction of one of our most important species of birds? How can we save an animal that it seems nobody really cares about?
Growing up, we are presented with images of vultures with their heads covered in blood, squawking and fighting, tearing apart the rotting flesh of a poor, cuddly young zebra or a defenseless wildebeest. Images on TV shows like National Geographic and Discovery Channel of vultures circling the skies of the African plains waiting for the lame and the sick animal to keel over just so they can get their fill leave an indelible print. However true that may be, the images are powerful and leave a negative impression. Because of this, we have little empathy for the vulture. Even the word 'vulture' has negative connotations; a dictionary definition of the word returns the results "a contemptible person who preys on or exploits others"… not great PR for the real vulture that in truth does the opposite. A more appropriate definition should read "a highly intelligent, compassionate person that cleans up everyone else's mess so people don't get sick. Otherwise known as a saint."
We in the West are privileged to have the opportunity of a fairy decent education, we are taught to show compassion towards other sentient beings. We can choose to love or loath animals based on what we know and what we have learnt. We have relationships with animals as our pets; we even dress them up in winter clothes so they don't get cold. We should and do know better than to throw rocks at a vulnerable bird. This is not the case for the kids that were terrorizing and torturing those poor vultures. They have no idea that vultures are as important as they are. They only see vultures as unsavory birds that descend from the skies and eat their dead cows. They know nothing about the consequences of their total disappearance and very little of the reasons why there are so few of them left. In reality they don't really care, and why should they? In their eyes vultures do nothing for them, they don't pull a plough, they don't lay eggs that can be eaten, they don't provide any food at all, nor can they pet them or cuddle them plus they are shrouded in superstition. In fact, to the lesser educated, the vulture is a pretty pointless and very undesirable animal indeed - why would they not want to throw rocks at it?
Fortunately for our three rescued Himalayan Griffon Vultures, they were all successfully released and lived to fight another day. It does seem that I'm painting a grim picture here, however there are some positives. There is an extraordinary conservation effort taking place across South Asia. Vulture captive breeding programs are now established in Nepal, India and Pakistan. Vulture chicks are bred for release back into the wild. This is not a quick fix; it will take decades and millions of dollars to make a dent in the lost population. Awareness campaigns are happening all over the world, there's even a day dedicated to this cause, International Vulture Awareness Day, held on the first Saturday of September each year.
For me the most significant success' are from "Vulture Restaurants" or Vulture Safe Zone's (VSZ's), these are essentially feeding areas that are designated Diclofenac free. Unwanted cows are brought to the center where they are cared for until they die a natural death. The Diclofenac free carcass is then put out for the wild vultures to feast on. There are several VSZ's across Nepal all with varying degrees of success. Some are seeing an increase in the number of birds nesting in the area, while others are satisfied that vultures are even feeding there at all.
One such project is the VSZ in Gachowk, Pokhara which was established 2 years ago partly with funds raised from Parahawking flights, Himalayan Raptor Rescue and grant contrubutions from IAATE. It is managed by Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) and the local community, who to be fair had little interest in vulture conservation before. However, the local community is starting to see the benefits as the VSZ is now a tourist attraction. We ourselves are taking small groups to their village on a regular basis, to watch the birds feed and support the community effort. They feel engaged in the project and proud to be part of the solution not the problem. Progress has been slow, hampered by its location and lack of infrastructure, but nothing moves quickly here in Nepal. The goal is to make all the VSZ's self sufficient within a couple of years, I, however feel that it's still a way off. Tourism alone won't pay the bills. More community based initiatives are needed which require money that won't be going to the core conservation effort. Funding for new farming methods, a fish farm or an apiary, projects that are essential to the community and the sustainability of the VSZ, is a hard sell for potential donors who would like their money to go directly towards 'saving vultures'.
Himalayan Raptor Rescue would like to take this opportunity to thank IAATE for their continued support in the form of grants to help fund the Vulture Safe Zone’s in Nepal, thereby helping in the fight to save Asia’s vultures from extinction
So what can we do about the kids, the rock throwers and the slingshots? Protecting the vultures, giving them safe food and breeding them in captivity are essential to the ongoing conservation effort, but they alone are not the solution. We have to educate the young, the kids with the catapults and sticks. It is this generation that we have to ensure will grow up with a newfound respect for the vulture. To provide the knowledge that their parents did not have about the importance of vultures in our ecosystem and an understanding of the social and ecological cost to every single one of us if vultures did not exist. If we can just slow down the decline long enough for this new breed of animal caring kids to become compassionate adults, who swap their catapults for binoculars, then the vultures may just have a chance.
As a society, we have to change our attitude towards vultures and find new ways to educate our children about the importance of vultures, not just in Asia but the world over. We know there is more to these magnificent raptors than just the images of them feeding and circling in the sky. They are amazingly intelligent animals with a unique skill set. We need them and they need us to be their friends, to like them, not loathe them, just like the Panda, the Orangutan, the Rhino and all the other animals that are on the brink of extinction. Remember The Jungle Book? The Vultures singing: "That’s What Friends Are For" - how poignant that sounds now.
The future, given the time that we have, looks pretty bleak. It seems everything is being done to ensure that it’s not Diclofenac that wipes out the vultures. But are we doing enough to make sure that the last remaining vultures are not struck down by a rock or battered over the head with a canoe paddle by kids who really should have known better.
|Frequently Asked Questions|
|Movies and Filming|