The Gyps vulture species including the white-backed vulture (Gyps Bengalensis) and the long-billed vulture (Gyps Indicus) have declined by more than 90 per cent in Pakistan, India and Nepal and are now classified as critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and its species assessors BirdLife International.
Diclofenac sodium, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), used in livestock, is the main cause of mortality through kidney failure in vultures.
In 2005, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Pakistan launched a captive breeding programme at Changa Manga forest, 80 kilometres south west of Lahore, aiming to secure a viable population of the white-backed vulture. It was a regional priority species for the Global Programme Framework of the WWF network.
Currently there are 18 white-backed vultures in the facility at Changa Manga forest.
One of the project’s biggest achievements has been lobbying for the implementation of a ban on the sale and manufacture of diclofenac sodium.
The Gyps Vulture Restoration Facility is the only ex-situ project in Pakistan dedicated to fighting threats faced by white-backed vultures. Ex-situ conservation means protecting an endangered species outside its natural habitat.
WWF–Pakistan is also a member of the Vulture Specialist Group of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission.
WWF-Pakistan is also working on the in-situ conservation of the white-backed vulture in Nagar Parkar, Sindh, since January 2012.
Gyps vultures and long-billed vulture populations are restricted to the Karoonjhar hills and its adjacent villages in Nagar Parkar.
Through the Vulture Safe Zone Project, WWF-Pakistan has established an area of 100 kilometres in diameter around the Gyps vulture populations in Nagar Parkar called the Vulture Safe Zone where the aim is to declare the area a diclofenac-free zone so that Gyps vultures can breed and thrive.
The objectives of this project include enhancing the availability and usage of the alternate, meloxicam, through lobbying with pharmaceutical companies, veterinarians and government departments.
This project is in line with the overall objective of the international consortium under the name of Saving Asian Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), with WWF-Pakistan is also represented on the board.
So far, the project has conducted assessment surveys on Diclofenac Sodium and its alternate Meloxicam’s availability at veterinary stores; the Gyps vulture population assessments during 2011-12 and 2012-13 breeding seasons and the carcass availability at Nagar Parker.
Potency tests of meloxicam samples collected from Nagar Parkar reveal that the formulation of meloxicam in Pakistan needs to be improved.
Recent research has shown that other drugs such as ketoprofen and aceclofenac are also fatal to vultures in a similar manner as diclofenac sodium as these metabolise in the body like diclofenac. The project has also integrated their availability assessment surveys in Nagar Parkar to check the current status.
Moreover, a community based organisation (CBO) Parkar Foundation has been registered at Nagar Parkar to serve as the backbone for this project and the eventual goal of the project will be a community sustained protected area for vultures. Conservation of vultures is aimed at bolstering the spirit of “International Vulture Awareness Day” celebrated every year on September 7 to highlight the importance of vultures in everyday life.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 5th, 2013.