A lot done, a lot more to do. That could be the Facebook status update for Ananya Mukherjee as she works to establish Vulture Safe Zones (VSZs) to help protect India’s remaining vulture populations.
Ananya is the Vulture Safe Zone Coordinator for the Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) programme organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) – an SOS grantee, who is working to build advocacy for the VSZ concept throughout the sub-continent, engaging with pharmacies, veterinarians, farmers, government officials, policymakers and conservationists alike. Recently, SOS interviewed Ananya over the telephone on one of her annual trips back from the field to RSPB’s headquarters in Sandy, UK, to delve into a complex conservation issue.
SOS: What exactly is a Vulture Safe Zone?
A lot of the threat to vultures in India has to do with the poisonous effects on vultures of the drug diclofenac, historically used to treat sick farm animals. The side effects have been especially hard on the Gyps vulture species endemic to the South Asian region in particular the long billed, the slender billed and the white rumpled vulture species. Consequently Vulture Safe Zones (VSZs) involves ensuring that there is absolutely no diclofenac in a 30,000 sq. km area (or 100 km radius), especially in the food supply of the vultures such as the cattle carcasses that they feed on.
SOS: Where are the current VSZs in place?
Provisional VSZs had been discussed by experts and authorities back in 2011. By March 2012, three sites had been identified as provisional VSZs - one in Uttarakhand and two in Uttar Pradesh. These areas are colonies where remnant populations of vultures still remain and it is hoped that the vultures would be released back into these natural habitats, eventually. By September 2012, two more provisional VSZs were identified in Gujarat and Assam where work has initiated as well.
SOS: Can you outline any challenges with managing VSZs?
One of the potential problems in India is that most of these VSZs have a large number of cattle populations living in the vicinity. This means people owning livestock and cattle would need to treat their sick cattle when they are ailing or suffering from old age. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (or NSAIDs) are available in the Indian market on a large scale and very cheaply. Most people use diclofenac because it's the most commonly available drug in the South Asian subcontinent. It's cheap and readily available.
SOS: How do you go about creating VSZs?
Advocacy at government and grassroots level and promotion of meloxicam as a viable alternative. Basically, advocating for a diclofenac-free zone means influencing people’s thoughts and opinions to bring about a positive response in not using diclofenac for veterinary purposes. The change was initiated in May 2006 when the Indian Government banned the veterinary use of diclofenac. Unfortunately, the ban did not reach far enough and before long, human forms of diclofenac were used to treat sick cattle. These human forms of the drug are currently being sold by most pharmacies in India with the label ‘Not for veterinary use’. Taking legal action against people using diclofenac is difficult when the veterinary form is not commonly sold by pharmacies in India.
The only NSAID drug that can be used on cattle and has been safety tested on vultures is meloxicam. But meloxicam is still not as popular as diclofenac and would require hard advocacy and campaigning in the Indian subcontinent from the government to the grassroots level to drive home the point that it does not harm the vultures when they eat cattle carcasses treated with meloxicam. It would also require a ban on the human multi-dose vial size of diclofenac which are being sold in the Indian market and which are often used for veterinary purposes. This is one of the team’s priorities: organising targeted awareness programmes and conducting sampling to find out whether diclofenac is being sold by pharmacies or being used by cattle owners to treat their sick cattle.
Ananya continues to play her role as a catalyst with each VSZ team in India, empowering and enabling them to understand how advocacy work can create momentum within their state. With gradual awareness and increasing support from all stakeholders, there is hope that the concept of VSZ will gain popularity. If successful, these VSZs will, in the long-run, be able to provide a safe-haven for nature’s undertakers to recover and resume their essential waste disposal activities safe en masse and from harm.