We’re celebrating 10 years of saving Asiatic vultures from extinction

If you think the sight of vultures circling overhead is annoying, imagine seeing none at all in places where it used to thrive. This was the reality for researchers in Asia in the 1990s, who first noticed these majestic birds of prey were disappearing, along with all the useful waste disposal services that came with them. In response, BirdLife partners across Asia worked with scientists and other conservation organizations to identify and fix the root cause before it was too late.

It wasn’t long before they found the main culprit: diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat farm animals but which is fatal to the vultures that clean the animals’ carcasses. This was the beginning of a long battle to get this drug and related substances removed from the market and rebuild vulture populations, many of which had declined by as much as 99%.

To strengthen their collaboration, organizations from all over the world came together in 2011 to create SAVE (Rescue the Vultures of Asia from Extinction). This consortium brought together 24 partners from a variety of sectors and subject areas, including five BirdLife partners who were at the forefront of the action. BirdLife has been extremely proud for the past decade to have been part of groundbreaking research, advocacy, and conservation efforts that exceed the sum of its parts.

Black Vulture, Copyright Glyn Sellors, from the Surfbirds Galleries

Today SAVE is a highly respected organization that is taken seriously by governments around the world. We have confirmed diclofenac bans in five countries, with the most recent bans in Iran and Oman being led directly by SAVE’s expertise. We released the first captive-bred white-backed vultures in Nepal and established a large network of vulture safety zones. We raised public awareness, many of whom were previously ignorant of the vulture crisis, and contributed to the Convention on the Instrumental Vulture Action Plan for Multiple Migratory Species, in which over 120 countries have committed to protecting 15 vulture species across Africa. Europe and Asia. This ambitious strategy relies heavily on SAVE’s Blueprint Recovery Plan, which is updated every year with new insights and discoveries.

The effects of all this hard work can already be seen: the latest research has shown that the populations of the Nepalese vulture gyps bengalensis and the slender beaked Tenuirostris vulture have slowly increased since 2013. This coincides perfectly with the time the sales were made. Diclofenac (banned in 2006) was successfully phased out in Nepal’s pharmacies.

Despite the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, SAVE still managed to make a difference. In 2020 alone, we developed a vulture conservation action plan in Myanmar, made important progress in banning ketoprofen (another drug that is toxic to vultures) in Bangladesh, and released eight captive-bred white-backed vultures in India.

There is still a long way to go – covert surveys in India’s pharmacies suggest that vulture venomous drugs may pick up again, and the death of a Cinereous Vulture in Europe this year, which legalized veterinary use of diclofenac in 2014, shows it that progress is not universal. Nevertheless, it is clear that we are moving in the right direction. To celebrate their 10th anniversary, SAVE has released a beautiful vulture song that sums up what we all think and is now hoping with increasing confidence: “We want you back.”

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