Last Bastion for Asia's Vultures

June 25, 2012

With vulture numbers drastically down across the Asian continent, scientists hone in on protecting Cambodian populations, one of the last hopes for these critically endangered birds.

Life hasn’t been easy for Asia’s vultures. These beleaguered birds of prey have declined by more than 90 percent across the Indian subcontinent, and they’re considered critically endangered. Scientists attribute the majority of these population losses to diclofenac, a veterinary drug used to boost health in cattle, but which turns out to be toxic to the vultures who scavenge their carcasses. Though largely unintentional, these mortalities threaten a species already challenged by slow breeding, limited food, and habitat loss. Vultures are directly persecuted, too; shootings account for 10 percent of recorded vulture deaths.

But amidst this grim outlook for the birds, one Southeast Asian country has remained a bright spot: Cambodia. Since 2004, authors of a new research paper for Bird Conservation International have collected data from sites in Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Vietnam. The study team has monitored vulture nesting sites and feeding stations, run health assessments, and put satellite transmitter vests on birds to assess their range. They’ve also interviewed government officials, hunters and wildlife traders to better understand the threats to vultures.

The researchers found that the birds’ success in Cambodia largely stems from the general absence of diclofenac in a region home to three vulture species. Despite the fate of their kin in surrounding countries, these populations have held on.

“Results from vulture censuses from the past several years have been encouraging, with new nests recorded and even population increases,” said WCS researcher Tom Clements, lead author on the new paper. “With continued investment, these critical populations can survive and grow.”

Cambodian vultures have had a friend in their home country’s leaders. The Royal Government of Cambodia preemptively instituted measures to prohibit the use of diclofenac. The country has also been hospitable to vulture restaurants—feeding stations where safe sources of meat are provided for the birds. The restaurants are especially important in light of recent declines in wild ungulates, formerly staple food sources for vultures.

Although Cambodia provides solace, risks abound. Vultures in Cambodia largely rely upon domestic animals for food, so introduction of diclofenac in the region would prove catastrophic. Cognizant of future threats, Joe Walston, Director of WCS’s Asia Program explained, “The challenge now is to reduce the indirect and direct persecution of vultures, specifically from poisoning and shooting, and longer-term pressures from habitat loss. Both of these can be addressed through conservation education and advocacy.”

Along with increasing the number of vulture restaurants, these tactics will offer the best hope for the birds’ future.

To learn more, read the press release.

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