Punjab set to launch mega project to save endangered vultures

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LAHORE: Keeping in view the success of World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan’s (WWF-P) restoration project for the population of the Oriental white-backed vulture, also known as the white-rumped vulture, Punjab Wildlife and Parks Department is all set to launch a captive breeding programme, which it hopes, will contribute to the recovery of the iconic birds, said project director Hassan Ali Sukhera on Friday.

“Deep in the Changa Manga forest, 45 miles from Lahore, WWF-P is already working with the Punjab Wildlife Department to restore the population of Oriental white-backed vultures but the current aviary has limited number of the bird and facilities.”

He said it has 19 white-backed vultures and a maximum capacity to accommodate 30 birds. The new project at Changa Manga will strengthen conservation of vultures in the wild and save vultures from the effects of NSAIDs and other toxic compounds. “It will also have a bigger aviary with 50 to 80 vultures and a maximum capacity of 150 vultures. The new project will also have an office block, a laboratory, incubation room, veterinary facilities, residences, boundary wall and gate, CCTV setup and land development,” added Sukhera.

Several species of vultures are on the verge of extinction in Pakistan, largely because of veterinary drugs injected into cattle. The scavengers have long been a crucial part of the ecosystem in Pakistan and across South Asia, helping to prevent disease and contamination of groundwater by feeding on animal carcasses.

Populations of the white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis) and the long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus) have dropped by more than 90 per cent and they are considered critically endangered across South Asia, mostly because of the use of veterinary drugs such as diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, that have contaminated the cattle carcasses which the birds feed on, the International Union for Conservation of Nature says. The drugs cause the vultures to suffer renal failure and die.

The veterinary drugs are still being used despite a long-running ban in place across South Asia aimed at helping the vultures recover. A new class of painkillers for livestock has been introduced, including ketoprofen and aceclofenac, which pose similar threats to the vultures.

However, it is not drugs alone that cause the vulture numbers to plummet. Another important factor may be the reduction of carcasses because of improved veterinary and livestock husbandry services and better carcass disposal in urban and semi-urban areas. The presence of two Gyps species in the remote Nagar Parkar area seems to support that argument, as veterinary and livestock husbandry services there are less sophisticated.

The birds’ breeding sites are also threatened by the loss of Dalbergia Sissoo trees, often home to vulture nests. An increasing number have been cut down by villagers for firewood, while others have fallen victim to termite attacks and dieback disease.