Kathmanddu: When residents of Pokhara Valley in western Nepal spot Egyptian vultures nesting on cliffs and trees, they sometimes misidentify them as crows and shoo them away. Sometimes they also destroy their nests, believing the birds bring bad luck.
- Egyptian vulture populations have declined drastically across much of their range, with their status in Nepal’s Pokhara Valley looking no less dire.
- The species has long benefited from breeding and nesting near human settlements, where food in the form of dead livestock was previously abundant.
- But with the decline of livestock farming in the region, and an increase in other, unsafe, sources of food, the vultures’ proximity to humans is growing into a threat to their survival.
- A new study that highlights this threat also calls on stakeholders in the Pokhara Valley to strengthen measures to protect the species.
But Neophron percnopterus, listed as endangered by the IUCN, the global conservation authority, still builds its nests relatively close to human settlements, and is likely do so due to the availability of food, suggests a study on the species recently published in the Journal of Raptor Research.
Proximity to humans comes with advantages and disadvantages for vultures, says study lead author Sandesh Gurung, from Nepali conservation research NGO Himalayan Nature.
As part of the study, Gurung, a resident of Pokhara, and his team observed previously identified potential nesting areas in the Pokhara Valley, home to all nine of the vultures found in South Asia and 470 species of birds. From 2012 to 2018, the team monitored these nesting sites during the breeding (March 1-15) and nest-building (May 5-20) seasons between 2012 and 2018.
During the study, the team found and monitored 21 occupied nests, 15 of which were occupied during the entire period of the study.
The team found that Egyptian vultures favored small cliffs near human settlements. They posit that the Egyptian vulture may have done so to avoid competing with other birds such as the rock eagle-owl (Bubo bengalensis), house crow (Corvus splendens), and large-billed crow (C. macrorhynchos) that also breed on cliffs.
The authors also suggest that by breeding on smaller cliffs at lower altitudes, Egyptian vultures minimize the energy required to search for food and carry it back to their young. Also, such areas aren’t easily accessed by humans unless they’re intent on getting there.
“Living near humans is beneficial for Egyptian vultures as they are a generalist species and can feed on different worms and carcasses,” said study co-author Tulsi Subedi, also from Himalayan Nature.
But such proximity to humans also has its disadvantages. “As members of the species are black when they are young, people confuse them with crows and some believe they bring bad luck,” says Pokhara-based conservationist Hemanta Dhakal, a member of the IUCN’s Vulture Specialist Group, who was not involved in the study.
“That the vulture uses different materials such as rags and other waste to make nests also makes it unpleasant for people living nearby,” Subedi said.
Humans also pose broader threats to the species.
According to IUCN, the Egyptian vulture population is declining in almost all of its known range, which stretches from southern Europe to northern Africa and South Asia. According to the IUCN, around 50-79% of the global population may have been lost since 1999. In Europe, the rate of decline over three generations is estimated to be greater than 10%, the figure for Africa stands at 91%, and in India it’s potentially greater than 99%.
Although studies on Egyptian vultures in Nepal have been limited, the decline in neighboring India indicates a similar scenario here, as both countries share an open border and similar cultural and agricultural practices. Vulture mortality in India has been attributed to the drug diclofenac, used as a painkiller among domestic cattle. When the sick cattle die, vultures feed on them and ingest the drug, which can cause fatal kidney failure in the birds. According to the NGO Bird Conservation Nepal, a single contaminated carcass can kill around 350-800 individual vultures.
“While diclofenac has been banned in Nepal and in India, vultures, including the Egyptian ones, continue to die due to poisoning,” Gurung said. For example, feral dogs are a big problem in Pokhara. People poison the dogs to get rid of them and throw the carcass in the river or the landfill site. Vultures that eat the poisoned carcasses also die, he added.
In addition to this, the urbanization of the valley and economic shifts may have affected vultures’ food habits, Gurung told Mongabay. In the past, when rearing cattle was a more prominent livelihood here, dead animals would be available for vultures as food. But these days, more people are involved in the service industries, such as tourism, and the cattle population is declining. However, as demand for meat grows, people rear chickens and run butcher shops; with fewer cattle available, vultures may have become dependent on waste from such shops as a source of food.
Landfill sites are also attractive sources of food for Egyptian vultures, Dhakal said.
That Egyptian vultures are breeding close to human-related food sources is a grave concern, note the study authors, as it could make them sick or even kill them. “We haven’t studied long-term effects of the food they are eating from landfills and other sources. They might be harboring some fatal disease akin to cancer in humans,” Dhakal told Mongabay.
A construction boom in Pokhara, fueled by the city’s massive urbanization, is also taking a toll on its natural resources. Developers are extracting construction material such as sand and gravel haphazardly from surrounding areas, often without proper environmental impact assessments, Subedi said. Some of the extraction sites are home to Egyptian vulture nests, but these are completely ignored and demolished without any precautions, he added. Gurung and his team observed that two of the 21 nests in their study were destroyed by sand miners.
Power transmission lines are also unsafe for vultures, reports in Nepali media show. A newly built airport, inaugurated Jan.1, is also likely to prove hazardous for Egyptian vultures as there’s a risk of collision with aircraft.
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The authors of the study recommend that local municipalities in the Pokhara Valley collaborate to save the Egyptian vultures by developing and implementing strategies to protect their nests and cliffs. They also suggest that local authorities make environmental impact assessment rules more stringent and prioritize the conservation of threatened bird species.
For Dhakal, the first step toward saving the species is to manage the city’s solid waste. If this can be done sustainably, vultures would be pushed to rely more on natural sources of food such as carcasses of wild animals and birds, and would be less at risk of suffering due to poisoning and consumption of toxic food waste, he said.
“Long-term monitoring of the species is also required to assess its situation in the future,” Gurung said.
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