LAHORE - The Gyps vulture species; white - backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis) and long - billed vulture (Gyps indicus) have declined by more than 90 per cent in Pakistan, India and Nepal since the early 1990s, and are now classified as Critically Endangered by IUCN (Bird Life International 2004).
Diclofenac Sodium, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), used in livestock, is the main cause of mortality that results in kidney failure in vultures. Vultures are ecologically important, being responsible for consuming dead animals and cleaning the environment.
In 2005, WWF-Pakistan launched a captive breeding programme at Changa Manga forest, 80 km south west of Lahore, aiming to secure a viable population of the white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis), a regional priority species for the Global Programme Framework of the WWF Network. Currently there are 18 white-backed vultures at Changa Manga forest facility. One of the project’s biggest achievements has been lobbying with the government to successfully implement a ban on the sale and manufacture of Diclofenac Sodium in September 2006. The Gyps Vulture Restoration Facility is the only ex-situ project in Pakistan dedicated to fight the threats faced by white-backed vultures. Ex-situ conservation means protecting an endangered species outside its natural habitat where it exists. WWF–Pakistan is also a member of the Vulture Specialist Group of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission.
WWF-Pakistan is also working on the in-situ conservation of the white-backed vulture in Nagar Parkar, Sindh since January 2012. Gyps vultures and long-billed vulture populations are restricted to the Karoonjhar hills and its adjacent villages in Nagar Parkar, therefore the in-situ conservation initiative is very important. In-situ conservation means protecting an endangered species in its natural habitat. Through the “Vulture Safe Zone Project” WWF-Pakistan has established an area of 100 km in diameter around the Gyps Vulture populations in Nagar Parkar called the “Vulture Safe Zone” where the main aim is to declare the area a “Diclofenac Free Zone” so that Gyps vultures can breed and thrive. The objectives of this project include enhancing the availability and usage of the alternate, Meloxicam, through lobbying with pharmaceutical companies, veterinarians and relevant government departments. This project is in line with the overall objective of the international consortium under the name of ‘Saving Asian Vultures from Extinction’ (SAVE), with WWF-Pakistan also being represented on the board.
So far the project has conducted assessment surveys on Diclofenac Sodium and its alternate Meloxicam’s availability at veterinary stores; the Gyps vulture population assessments during 2011-12 and 2012-13 breeding seasons and the carcass availability at Nagar Parker. Despite the ban on the sale and use of Diclofenac Sodium, the drug is still administered to livestock. However, veterinarians are reluctant to divulge this information.
Potency tests of Meloxicam samples collected from Nagar Parkar reveal that the formulation of Meloxicam in Pakistan needs to be improved. Recent research has shown that other drugs such as Ketoprofen and Aceclofenac are also fatal to vultures in a similar manner as Diclofenac Sodium as these metabolize in the body like Diclofenac. The project has also integrated their availability assessment surveys in Nagar Parkar to check the current status.