In celebration of International Vulture Awareness Day on Saturday 1 September, Ananya Mukherjee, Vulture Safe Zone coordinator at the RSPB explains how advocacy and awareness raising is helping to save vultures through an SOS supported project.
As the most efficient and natural incinerator of dead animal remains, vultures play a vital role in ecosystem services, cleaning the environment of rotting carcasses and helping to prevent the spread of disease. However, in the South Asian subcontinent, three Gyps vulture species remain Critically Endangered, as a result of the use of the diclofenac drug on livestock, which is toxic to vultures and has caused the population to crash. Spreading the message of the dangers to vultures from diclofenac, and promoting alternative livestock drugs is vital in order to save the vultures from extinction.
The Vulture Safe Zone approach
In order for vulture populations to recover, and to provide a safe environment for captive bred birds to be released, diclofenac use must be virtually eliminated throughout the species’ range – a huge challenge, but one which must be undertaken to prevent the loss of vultures forever. Our SOS funded project is supporting vital awareness raising and advocacy, targeted at a grassroots level in local communities, where vultures can still be found. These areas are called Vulture Safe Zones, and the vision is to replicate these Zones across the vultures’ range, providing landscapes free from diclofenac use, and areas where captive bred birds can be eventually released.
With SOS support, four provisional Vulture Safe Zones have been established in India where we have been working with our partner the Bombay Natural History Society and local NGOs to spread the vulture message and reduce the use of harmful veterinary drugs. A key element, in ensuring diclofenac is not being used to treat sick cattle, is active engagement of local communities in the conservation work. The states have complex regional diversities, there can be no “one-size-fit-all” advocacy approach across states, and the need for constant improvisation to meet local needs is vital. Much of the Vulture Safe Zone work includes building capacity within the vulture teams and creating a strong lobby amongst key government officials to raise awareness on the significance of the decline of vultures. Individual meetings to advocate vultures with Drug Commissioners of each state have been useful to raise awareness of the misuse of the human formulation of diclofenac drug on animals, but the key challenge remains changing the behaviour of current and potential users of diclofenac.
From grassroots to governments
In addition, vulture conservation efforts received a huge boost in May 2012, with the signing of the Regional Declaration on Vulture Conservation, by Governments representatives from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. This regional declaration includes commitments to ban multi-dose vials of the human diclofenac (which is currently being misused by the veterinary sector). This represents a great step in efforts to prevent the extinction of these three species and work now begins with partners and governments to ensure legislation is passed to support the agreed commitments.