Unloved vul­tures fight for their sur­vival in Pak­istan

White-backed vul­ture fac­ing ex­tinc­tion

Kuwait Times - - Health -

CHANGA MANGA: Once a com­mon sight in the skies of Pak­istan, to­day the white-backed vul­ture is fac­ing ex­tinc­tion-its pop­u­la­tion dev­as­tated by the use of in­dus­trial drugs to breed the cat­tle whose car­casses they tra­di­tion­ally feed on. Bird num­bers have plum­meted by more than 99 per­cent since the 1990s, ac­cord­ing to the lo­cal branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which is des­per­ately at­tempt­ing to en­sure the species does not die out. “Once vul­tures were found in a very good num­ber in Pak­istan,” ex­plains Warda Javed, co­or­di­na­tor for the WWF backed Vul­ture Restora­tion Project. But due to sev­eral threats-prin­ci­pally the use of the anti-in­flam­ma­tory drug Di­clofenac, which causes kid­ney fail­ure the birds are dy­ing out.

In a vast screened en­clo­sure in the east­ern for­est of Changa Manga, about 100 kilo­me­ters from Pak­istan’s cul­tural cap­i­tal La­hore, some 20 Gyps Ben­galen­sis-or the white­backed vul­tures-wait pa­tiently for their din­ner, tra­di­tion­ally made of don­key and goat meat. With plumage of white and ash grey, their pow­er­ful beaks fit­ted to long pink necks, they watch from their wooden perches, some ten me­ters above the ground. They boast a wing­span of two me­ters and weigh up to 7.5 kilo­grams. Locked up, at least they are safe: The goal is to keep the species alive un­til out­side con­di­tions im­prove enough for them to be re­leased.

Di­clofenac is used as a painkiller by live­stock breed­ers in Pak­istan. Vul­tures con­sume the meat off the car­casses of the cat­tle and so in­gest the drugs, which wreak havoc with their sys­tems. The WWF is lob­by­ing au­thor­i­ties, vet­eri­nar­i­ans and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies for the re­place­ment of Di­clofenac with an al­ter­na­tive, Meloxi­cam, which is safer for the birds. Di­clofenac was banned in neigh­bor­ing In­dia in 2006 af­ter it was also blamed for de­stroy­ing the vul­ture pop­u­la­tion there, which went from mil­lions to just a few thou­sand in lit­tle more than a decade, but it re­mains in use in Pak­istan.

Bird num­bers plum­met by over 99%

Sym­bols of death

At the Vul­ture Restora­tion Project in Changa Manga they are play­ing the long game. Four vul­ture ba­bies were born in the last two years through the cen­tre’s breed­ing pro­gram, but it will be years be­fore they are re­leased into the wild. “Up till 2020, we don’t have any re­lease plans un­til we have a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment out­side this cen­tre as well,” Javed ex­plains, warn­ing that even if Di­clofenac is banned in Pak­istan, other drugs used in cat­tle breed­ing can cause prob­lems for the birds. There are eight species of vul­tures in Pak­istan, two of which-the white-backed vul­ture and the Indian vul­ture-are crit­i­cally en­dan­gered.

Prin­ci­pally scav­engers that feast on car­casses, the birds have long been as­so­ci­ated with death. An is­sue com­pounded on the Indian sub­con­ti­nent as they have also been used to dis­pose of hu­man re­mains as part of the cen­turies-old tra­di­tion of Dakhma, the fu­neral process of the Zoroas­trian com­mu­nity known as the Par­sis. Bod­ies were first put on top of moun­tains and later on placed on top of spe­cially-built struc­tures known as ‘Towers of Si­lence’, where the flesh was de­voured by the birds. But the Parsi com­mu­nity is dwin­dling in In­dia and Pak­istan, and the cus­tom is fad­ing. The as­so­ci­a­tion with death and mis­for­tune, how­ever, still lingers mak­ing it hard to gal­va­nize pub­lic sym­pa­thy for the crea­tures’ dire plight. Fa­tima

So­lu­tions

Arif of WWF-Pak­istan con­cedes that for most peo­ple, vul­tures evoke neg­a­tive emo­tions, but is hope­ful the char­ity can help them im­prove their im­age. “We are try­ing to gather the gen­eral pub­lic to let them know that the myths that are gen­er­ally as­so­ci­ated with this species are not re­ally based on any fact but they are just folk­lore,” she says. Arif adds: “Vul­tures are very shy birds, they are very car­ing par­ents.”— AFP

CHANGA MANGA, Pak­istan: White-backed vul­tures in their en­clo­sure at the Vul­ture Con­ser­va­tion Cen­tre run by World Wide Fund for Na­ture-Pak­istan (WWF-P) in Changa Manga, about 80km from La­hore. — AFP

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