Can Captive Breeding Rescue Vultures from Extinction?

John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 11, 2004

Twenty to 30 years of captivity is the only option left to save three species of south Asian vultures from extinction, according to conservationists who are racing against time to get enough birds into safekeeping.

Over the past decade populations of the Asian white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis), long-billed vulture (Gyps indicus), and slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) have declined by more than 95 percent in Pakistan, India, and Nepal.

Researchers recently determined that the raptors, which were the Indian subcontinent's carcass-disposal system, are dying of kidney failure shortly after scavenging livestock treated with diclofenac, a painkiller akin to aspirin or ibuprofen.

At word of the link between the painkiller and the vulture deaths, conservationists and government officials from India, Pakistan, and Nepal convened in India to discuss a recovery effort.

Conservationists called for an immediate ban on the veterinary use of diclofenac and search for a safe alternative to the drug.

"But the fact is, we don't expect this drug to be removed from the environment right away. It will take time to ban it, and there are probably stocks of it left around," said Rick Watson, international programs director for the Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho.

As a result, bird-conservation groups around the world, in cooperation with government officials, are racing to establish captive-breeding facilities on the subcontinent. It's a final bid to rescue the vultures from the brink of extinction.

"Something really urgent has got to be done," said Debbie Pain, head of international research for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Berfordshire, United Kingdom. "Even if it were possible to remove diclofenac in the next six months, we need to bring birds into captivity now, as the population is declining so rapidly in the wild."

Breed and Release

The concept envisioned by the conservationists is to place 25 breeding pairs of each of the three vulture species in at least three different facilities and encourage the birds to breed and raise young.

Once the environment is cleaned of diclofenac, the young vultures will be released back into the wild. There, they will establish a viable and sustainable population, conservationists hope.

The Peregrine Fund successfully used this technique to rescue the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) from extinction in the 1970s. Also, the fund is currently using it to help save the Aplomodo falcon (Falco femoralis) and the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus).

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