After years of breeding and conservation efforts, the rare white-backed vultures at the Vulture Conservation Center in Changa Manga Forest are aching to be in the air but experts feel letting them out in the open poses significant risks.
The country’s vulture population was devastated in the 90s when they started developing kidney problems due to the presence of a chemical in the cattle flesh they consumed. “Vultures eat the flesh of dead animals and since in the 90s the painkillers administered to cattle had dichlorophen acid in them, Pakistan’s vultures started having kidney failures,” informed Assistant Director of Punjab Wildlife, Khawaja Junaid.
To address the dwindling population of the rare birds, in 2005, Punjab Wildlife in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) established the Vulture Conservation Centre in Changa Manga at a cost of Rs 82.23 million. Now, after 18 years, the conservation centre houses 29 vultures, 16 of which are adults, 10 are sub-adults, and 3 are chicks.
“The first 10 years were quite difficult. Several experiments were carried out for increasing the vulture population, which included experimentation with breeding and hatching, and finally our efforts bore fruit,” said Junaid. However, the Assistant Director of Punjab Wildlife feels that all their efforts will be undone if the vultures are released into the open because the chemical responsible for their death is still being used in animal medication in the country, despite a ban on it.
Jamshed Chaudhry, who is in charge of the vulture conservation project, has the same fear as Junaid. “Dichlorophen acid nearly decimated the population of these vultures but despite the ban it is still being used in Pakistan under different names,” he regretted. When asked how he was so sure about the prevalence of dichlorophen, Chaudhry replied: “We recently conducted a survey in all districts of Punjab, in which various medical stores were checked. We found out that the salt-like chemical is being used in at least 5 medicines, which are sold over the counter, without a need for a prescription.” Therefore, even though the vultures would love to be in the air, releasing them without taking any precautions means wasting nearly 2 decades of hard work, as per Chaudhry.
Animal rights activist, Aneeza Khan Umarzai, concurring with Chaudhry, opined that the government and the drug regulatory authority should ensure that 18 years of effort is not wasted.
While it remains to be seen whether the provincial government will ensure protection of the rare birds, the Vulture Conservation Centre and Punjab Wildlife plan on releasing two vultures into a protected environment. When asked about these plans, Chaudhry said, “we will release two birds into a wildlife national park or protected area after installing transmitters. This will ensure that whatever flesh the birds consume is not dangerous for them.”
However, Chaudhry feels that confining the birds to a particular area is not a long-term solution. “Either the vultures should be moved to the Nagarparkar area of Sindh, where a 100 kilometre area has been declared as a vulture-safe zone; or the drug regulatory body starts implementing the dichlorophen ban.”
The Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan’s Chief Executive Officer, Asif Rauf, refuses to comment on this issue.