On October 19th 2019 the Government of Nepal, Bird Conservation Nepal and other national and international conservation organisations further released 13 Critically Endangered White-rumped Vultures Gyps bengalensis into the wild, including six captive-bred and seven captive-reared birds.
The formal briefing of the program began early morning at Jatayu Restaurant Office in Pithauli which was chaired by DB Chaudhary, Coordinator, Jatayu Restaurant Management Committee and the chief guest was Gopal Prakash Bhattarai, Director General, Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. Other dignitaries of the program were Sarad Dhakal, Director, Conservation Department, Nepal Army, Narayan Rupakheti, Chief Conservation Officer, Chitwan National Park, Purneshwor Subedi, Divisional Forest Officer, Nawalpur district, Ishana Thapa, CEO, BCN, Bhogendra Rayamajhi, Senior Program Officer, ZSL Nepal, Ram Kumar Aryal, Chief, Biodiversity Conservation Center, National Trust for Nature Conservation and other conservationist and local people. Summary of the Vulture Release Programme was presented by BCN Vulture Conservation Program Manager, Krishna Bhusal. Then, after walking to the release site itself, a packed hide watched as chief guest Gopal Prakash Bhattarai, Director General, Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, pulled the rope that opened the release aviary. Outside, a buffalo carcass had been placed and had already attracted many wild vultures, including several previously released birds. Within three minutes, the first captive bird flew through the open gate to join the throng of birds frenziedly feeding at the carcass. Within an hour, all but three of the birds had left the confines of the aviary, and had all flew to the freedom and safety of the trees surrounding the release area.
As with previous releases, the birds have been fitted with GPS telemetry tags, which will allow us to follow their movements and monitor their survival. Nepal was the first country to eliminate the sale of diclofenac, the vulture-toxic veterinary drug responsible for pushing White-rumped and other Gyps vultures to near-extinction. By monitoring the GPS-tagged birds, both released and wild, and investigating the cause of mortality of any vultures that die, we can ensure that diclofenac and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are no longer posing a threat to these Critically Endangered birds. Promisingly, monitoring of the birds already released and tagged, after more than a year since the World’s first Vulture Safe Zone (VSZ) was declared, we have had no evidence that any of these birds have succumbed to NSAID-poisoning. Hopefully, the fate of the newly-released birds, and those wild birds also caught and tagged this week, will be similarly successful, and the VSZ can be considered truly safe for vultures.
Previous releases in 2017 and 2018 along with the tagging of wild vultures, have enabled us to confirm that the provisional Vulture Safe Zones (pVSZ) are genuinely so far proving safe for vultures, free of diclofenac and other toxic NSAIDs, and other sources of mortality. The movements and survival of a total of 38 birds (20 wild and 18 captive) have been monitored so far.
Wild birds have ranged widely, only occasionally returning to the feeding area at Pithauli. One wild tagged wandering bird travelled about 1100km, far from the release site up to the area of Jammu and Kashmir, India. Their continued survival tells us that the food that they are eating is safe, and crucially, free from vulture-toxic NSAIDs. The assessment of the pVSZ began after birds were released in September 2018 and has already exceeded 380 days with no mortality by drug contamination. In fact, the first birds released in 2017 have now been free ranging for more than 680 days.
Bird Conservation Nepal leads the release work with full support of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Chitwan National Park, and the National Trust for Nature Conservation. The RSPB provides much of the technical and financial support for the work and The UK Trust for Nature Conservation and ZSL kindly provided funds for two tags and one of the release aviaries.