- The discovery of 14 dead vultures in an area of Bangladesh considered safe for the scavenging birds has highlighted the persistent threats to the birds despite ongoing measures to protect them.
- The vultures are thought to have died after feeding on a goat carcass laced with poison, which local residents had left out for feral dogs and jackals that had killed their livestock.
- Vulture populations across South Asia were decimated in the 1990s by the widespread use of the cattle painkiller diclofenac; birds that fed on dead cattle that had been treated with the drug died of severe poisoning.
- Bangladesh has since banned diclofenac and ketoprofen, another livestock painkiller deemed poisonous to vultures, and established vulture-safe zones around the country in an effort to boost their populations.
Authorities investigating the discovery of 14 dead vultures in a feeding zone that’s meant to be safe for the scavenging birds have found that they died from eating poisoned bait left for other wildlife.
The preliminary inquiry by the Bangladesh Forest Department and the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, determined that local people had deliberately poisoned a goat carcass and left it out for feral dogs and jackals that had been attacking the community’s livestock.
The discovery of the dead vultures began with a white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis) that IUCN researchers had fitted with a satellite tag in October 2022. On March 22 this year, they noticed that the bird had been transmitting its position from the same location for about 15 days. This prompted them to send a rescue team to the location, where they found the vulture dead and hanging between two trees. A wider search yielded two more dead vultures, also hanging from trees.
The team widened their search to the areas of Kalar Bazar, Raipur, Buriganga and Moulovibazar, all within the so-called vulture-safe zone of Sylhet division. In all, they recovered 14 vulture carcasses (12 white-rumped vultures and two Himalayan griffons, Gyps himalayensis).
This incident is particularly severe for Bangladesh’s white-rumped vultures, whose total estimated population in the country was just 260 in 2015, when a national action plan to save the birds was drawn up.
According to the IUCN, it appeared locals in the area had recently lost several goats to feral dogs or jackals, prompting the residents to retaliate by trying to poison them. Several dogs and jackals wound up feeding on the poisoned bait and dying, which also appears to be the case for the vultures, said A.B.M. Sarowar Alam, project manager at the IUCN’s Bangladesh office.
Local authorities have since taken measures to prevent such actions, including issuing announcements at local mosques during Friday prayers, Alam said.
Vulture conservation in Bangladesh
Bangladesh is home to six vulture species. The white-rumped and slender-billed vultures (Gyps tenuirostris), both critically endangered, are considered residents in the country, while the four other species — Himalayan griffon, cinereous (Aegypius monachus), griffon (Gyps fulvus) and Indian (Gyps indicus) vultures — are migratory.
Vulture hotspots in Bangladesh are Sylhet division in the country’s northeast, Mymensingh division in the north, and parts of the Sundarbans in the south, the world’s single largest mangrove forest.
Across South Asia, vulture populations plummeted in the 1990s due to the widespread use of the cattle painkiller diclofenac. Birds that fed on the carcasses of cattle that had been treated with the drug died, and in 2011 the Bangladesh government banned the use of diclofenac for cattle.
Another cattle painkiller, ketoprofen, is also known to be harmful to vultures, and was banned in vulture-frequented areas of Bangladesh in 2021.
In 2015, the government drew up its 10-year National Vulture Conservation Action Plan, aimed at halting the decline in vulture populations through a wide range of measures. These include establishing vulture-safe zones, where the use of substances that can poison vultures is strictly regulated; coordinating transboundary conservation issues with governments of neighboring vulture range states; and banning cattle medication that could be harmful to vultures, said Abu Naser Mohsin Hossain, an official with the Bangladesh Forest Department.
He added that authorities have been trying to implement all the measures mentioned in the action plan, which was prepared in collaboration with the IUCN.
Under the action plan, the forestry ministry has already established two safe zones, in Sylhet and Khulna divisions. These zones are home to large populations of white-rumped vultures as well as two large vulture-breeding colonies. Combined, these zones cover an area of 47,380 square kilometers (18,294 square miles).
The action plan has also spawned vulture conservation teams made up of members of local communities living near the breeding colonies. These teams help protect the vulture breeding grounds and key habitats, said Alam, who oversees these initiatives on behalf of IUCN Bangladesh.
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