As recently as two decades ago, an estimated 50,000 nesting pairs of vultures lived in the wilds of Nepal. Today, that number may be as low as 500.
Ravaged by the effects of a poison that is used to treat inflammation in cattle, several species of the carrion-eating birds have been pushed towards the edge of extinction. Now, in a desperate effort to save them, Nepal is set to open its first breeding centre dedicated to rearing vultures that can be released into the wild.
"This is just a beginning and more pairs will be subsequently trapped and released," said Dev Ghimire, an official with Bird Conservation Nepal. "It is a very important project and needs long-term commitment."
It is not just Nepal that has seen its vulture population tumble in the past 20 years. In India and Pakistan, some estimates suggest the populations of three species of vulture have fallen by 97 per cent. In India, the situation has become so bad that in places such as Mumbai, members of the Parsee community who carry out "sky burials" at the "towers of silence", in which vultures pick clean the bodies of the dead, have had to find alternative methods. In some cases, Parsee communities – Zoroastrians who do not permit either burial or cremation – have tried using magnifying lenses to increase the sun's force to incinerate the remains because there are insufficientbirds to perform the task. Those solar panels have only been partly successful and have caused widespread controversy.
Across the sub-continent, the depletion of the vultures has been caused by diclofenac, a drug used to treat inflammation in cows and buffaloes. Harmless to the animals it is used to treat, it causes kidney failure in the birds that feed on the carrion of the cattle. For several years, international bird groups have campaigned for it to be banned – a move that India took in May 2006, followed by Nepal and Pakistan several months later.
Bird Conservation Nepal has already established several feeding areas across the country for vultures, using the carcasses of toxin-free cattle. "The vultures' restaurants are attracting the birds from distant places raising the hope that the uncontaminated diet would help recover the South Asian birds under critical decline," said the group.
Mr Ghimire told Reuters that the group had been looking to India for help. "We can use the techniques and expertise applied by conservationists in India which also has vulture breeding centres," he said. "But it will take at least three or four years before we can expect to release the young birds bred at the centre into the wild."
The group's plan is to capture at least 10 breeding pairs for both of the two species that are critically endangered in Nepal – the white-rumped and slender-billed vultures. Initially, they will be kept in two aviaries in Chitwan National Park,50 miles from Kathmandu. They will be caught from March during the breeding season when it is easier to trap them, said Mr Ghimire.
Nepal's government's stepped in to prohibit the use and production of diclofenac after veterinary companies produced an alternative, meloxicam, that was just as cheap. Campaigners say that promoting the use of meloxicam by farmers in key vulture areas across the country remains a vital task if the birds are to have a chance of recovering their former numbers.
Britain's Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds has been involved in projects to inform farmers of the alternative.