Globally extinct within 10 years: that has been the worst prediction for three species of vulture which have disappeared from huge swathes of southern Asia. But the latest exciting news from a conservation partnership in India reveals that all three species have now successfully reared young in a captive breeding centre, providing some long-term hope for these three Critically Endangered species, especially as the ultimate aspiration will be to return birds to the wild.
Reportedly, before their population crash, Asia's vulture population extended to tens of millions of birds, but now the combined population of all three species numbers is believed to be well below 60,000 individuals. And with the population of at least one species almost halving each year, the success of captive breeding may give some hope that these magnificent birds will be prevented from reaching oblivion.
The centre reports that 10 vulture chicks have fledged this year, with three Indian Vulture Gyps indicus chicks fledging in captivity for the first time ever. These chicks were complemented by the fledging of three Slender-billed Vultures G. tenuirostris and four White-rumped Vultures G. bengalensis.
The population crash of Asia's vultures was first noted in the late 1990s, since then their rate of decline has been steeper than many other species, including the infamous extinction of the dodo. The vultures' catastrophic decline has been driven by the veterinary use of diclofenac. A vulture will die of acute kidney failure within a few days of consuming meat from the carcass of livestock recently treated with the drug.
Chris Bowden, of the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), said: "The crisis facing vultures is one of the worst facing the natural world. Since the declines of these birds was first noticed, the speed at which they have gone is terrifying – and these birds played such an important role in cleaning up carcasses and the environment!"
"Although we may never again witness the sheer abundance of vultures across southern Asia, the latest news provides hope that we may, at least, be able to prevent the total extinction of these birds."
"Quickly building up the important captive stock so they can be released within a few years is crucial. But this will also depend on eliminating diclofenac from veterinary and farming practice and this still needs a big effort from everyone", said Dr Asad Rahmani, Director of the Bombay Natural History Society (BirdLife in India).
Most of the birds were reared at Pinjore, in Haryana, where the Haryana State Government has recently started further aviary construction. One nestling was raised at Rajabhat Khawa, in West Bengal. The youngest of these nestlings have finally taken their first flights this week.
The partnership involves the Bombay Natural History Society, the RSPB as well as expert input from the UK International Centre for Birds of Prey (ICBP) and the Zoological Society of London.
Jemima Parry-Jones, of ICBP said, "Bringing in expertise from rearing similar species has been a rewarding experience, and thanks to the Pinjore centre's dedicated staff, this success – which we were always convinced would happen – means we can now look forward to increasing the number of chicks reared." The centre's staff are led by Vibhu and Nikita Prakash.
Parvez Ahmed, of Haryana State Government said, "We are very proud to be hosting and playing our part in this project, which is breaking important new ground and increasing hopes for the future of these important environmental cleaners."
The use of artificial incubation techniques has represented a world first for the rearing of White-rumped and Indian Vulture chicks. Chris Bowden added, "This success gives us hope that we may even be able to increase the number of birds reared in captivity."