First chick born in captivity raises hopes for survival of Asian vultures

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Conservationists in India are celebrating the arrival of the first oriental white-backed vulture chick to be bred in captivity as part of a breeding programme designed to save the species from extinction.

The chick, which hatched last week at a breeding centre in northern India, is one of three species of Asian vulture that have been almost wiped out by a drug used on domestic cattle.

Asian vultures have declined by as much as 99 per cent over the past decade after feeding on the carcasses of cattle and water buffalo treated with diclofenac - an anti-inflammatory painkiller. White-backed, slender-billed and long-billed vultures have all been affected and biologists feared that they would become extinct unless urgent action was taken to ban diclofenac and set up a captive-breeding programme.

Chris Bowden of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which is advising the Indian authorities, said that the safe arrival of the first chick was critical to ensure that the conditions were right. "This is the first captive breeding of this species and it is really important in terms of giving us the confidence we needed to continue," Mr Bowden said. "It is the only sure method we have got for preventing the total extinction of the species in the wild. It's a safety net."

So far the programme has recruited about 130 birds from the three species. It hopes to have about 25 pairs from each species living at four breeding centres over the next few years.

India and Pakistan are trying to eradicate the use of diclofenac by cattle farmers but scientists believe that it may take 10 years before the ban is fully effective. Farmers are being offered an alternative that is known to be safe to vultures.

Vibu Prakash, principal scientist on the breeding programme, said: "This is the most precious new year gift from nature to vulture conservation. This success shows that we have got the conditions right, so now we can plan ahead with confidence to breed many more vultures in the future."

The breeding centre, in Pinjore, Haryana, is one of two set up to house birds caught to protect them from diclofenac. The other is at the Buxa Tiger Reserve in West Bengal.