Long-billed vulture chick. First ever successful captive breeding of Gyps indicus, using artificial incubators.

New generation fledge

Chris Bowden, Head of Vulture Programme, on the best year yet for vulture chicks.

Good news

"I'm very happy to bring you some positive news - 18 young vultures have fledged from the captive breeding centres in India this year. This gives us further confidence that we're on the right track. Fifteen of the 18 fledged juveniles were at the Pinjore centre in Haryana, whilst the remaining three were at Rajabhat Khawa in West Bengal.

Another first for the centres is that four of these chicks were a direct result of double clutches. This means that some pairs produced a second egg and chick, after the first was removed, hatched in an incubator and reared by the highly trained Bombay Natural History Society staff. Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund has provided much of the support for running the Pinjore centre over this recent important phase.

It's important to share and celebrate every success on a long-term project such as this, but because you are a supporter of our work, I want to use this opportunity to tell you a bit more about a new challenge we are facing in our fight against the banned veterinary drug diclofenac.

Bending the rules

A new study published in science journal Oryx, written by our very own Dr Richard Cuthbert and the Bombay Natural History Society's Dr Vibhu Prakash, has found that over a third of Indian pharmacies continue to sell diclofenac for veterinary use, despite the drug being banned in 2006 because of its toxicity to critically endangered vultures.

The manufacture and sale of diclofenac for veterinary use is illegal but farmers and livestock owners are taking advantage of a loophole in the law and purchasing human diclofenac illegally in conveniently large bottles to treat their cattle. This is difficult to prevent, given the wide availability of human diclofenac.

Still for sale

As you usually hear from me, I thought you might be interested in hearing from two of the key members of our project team, who were also the authors of the study I mentioned above. Firstly, principal conservation scientist at the RSPB, Dr Richard Cuthbert:

'The [veterinary diclofenac] ban is still quite easy to avoid because human formulations are still freely for sale in large vials, which are convenient for use on large animals like cattle and clearly not suitable for human use. Preventing the misuse of human diclofenac for veterinary use remains the main challenge in halting the decline of endangered vultures.

'While the research shows that there is still widespread availability of diclofenac after the ban, encouragingly it also shows an increase in meloxicam (found in 70 per cent of pharmacies), a drug that has very similar therapeutic effects on cattle as diclofenac but which has been proven to be safe to vultures.

'There is also evidence that untested drugs such as nimesulide are more widely available in the market. The effects these drugs have on vultures are as yet unknown. Ketoprofen, an alternative that has been tested and shown to be deadly to vultures, has still not been banned. It was on sale for veterinary use in 29% of pharmacies.'

Firm action needed

And secondly, Dr Vibhu Prakash of the Bombay Natural History Society:

'While the increase in meloxicam brands and availability is encouraging, a major concern from these surveys is the still widespread availability of diclofenac in pharmacies after the ban.

'Firm action at Government level against pharmaceutical companies and pharmaceutical shops that are breaking the law by manufacturing and selling diclofenac for veterinary use is urgently needed if we are to save vultures from extinction.'

With the latest success at the breeding centres, we're more confident than ever that there will be sufficient numbers for reintroduction to the wild as soon as it's safe for them, but until diclofenac stops being produced and sold for veterinary use we cannot guarantee these birds have any future in the wild.

Thank you so much for your continuing support. Have a lovely Christmas and a happy New Year from all of us on the vulture project team."

- Chris Bowden, Head of Vulture Programme

Long-billed vulture chick, 4 weeks old.