Asian Vultures

A crash of historic proportions
From the mid-1990s, vulture populations throughout south Asia crashed, with up to 99% of some species literally dropping dead without explanation. Finding the cause was grim, difficult work, but we persisted… 

TO CHANGE THE FUTURE

three Asian vultures perch in a tree

Pete Stubbs

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Vultures are masters at scouring the landscape to quickly pinpoint fresh carcasses—a critical food source for them, but a bacteria-laden hazard to humans. Vultures’ adaptations—high stomach acidity, crushing bill strength, and featherless heads for staying clean—guarantee efficient clean-up, so disease-spreading scavengers like rats, feral dogs, and flies don’t multiply.

Three vulture species in Asia were destined for extinction in less than a decade, a catastrophe unprecedented since the loss of billions of passenger pigeons in the last century. Peregrine Fund biologists struggled to understand how tens of millions could die so rapidly, and through meticulous forensic investigations discovered the answer in 2003: an inexpensive, readily-available drug called diclofenac sodium had been introduced in the region for treating sick cattle. Consuming even small traces of diclofenac in cattle carcasses causes rapid kidney failure in vultures. Since only four percent of an estimated 500 million cattle in India are for human consumption, the availability of carrion for scavengers is significant.

Threats to Asian Vulture species

Contaminants
Contaminants
Invasive Species
Invasive Species
A pair of Long-billed Vultures nesting on a building

Munir Virani

our impact
In 2003 we opened the first vulture “restaurant” in south Asia to provide diclofenac-free food. Several have since been established by communities who value vultures and benefit from tourists who come to see them.

We annually measure conservation impacts at vulture breeding colonies in India as a partner in Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE), a consortium of organizations.

Tulsi Subedi studied Bearded Vultures in Nepal

Munir Virani

our impact

Nepal, India, and Pakistan banned diclofenac sodium for veterinary use, thanks to our findings and advocacy with partners: the Bombay Natural History Society, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Nature Conservation Pakistan, and Bird Conservation Nepal. 

The Peregrine Fund advocated along with conservation and government partners to ban veterinary use of diclofenac in Nepal, Pakistan, and India, and bans were enacted three years later. To measure the bans’ effects, we monitor 450 pairs of Long-billed Vultures in the Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The population stabilized in the five-year period after the ban was enacted, leading us to believe a positive trend had begun; but more recently we’ve observed declines, pointing to a need for vigilance and further action.

Diclofenac is still available for humans, and can easily be misused for treating livestock.

At least seven other veterinary drugs on the market are potentially toxic to vultures, and new drugs may appear without thorough testing. We work closely with partners in south Asia who are identifying vulture-safe alternatives and encouraging tighter regulation of toxic veterinary drugs. We also track 13 Bearded Vultures (photo above) to study their habits and territories, and we support graduate students throughout south Asia to increase our capacity to deal with future crises.

In 2017, the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species recognized The Peregrine Fund in a Raptors Memorandum of Understanding. The Convention seeks to halt population declines of 15 vulture species across Africa and Eurasia and recommends 124 actions for countries to restore numbers by 2029.