Three nests of rare vulture species spotted in Cambodia

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New Delhi, Feb 1: Three nests of the critically endangered red-headed vulture were found this month in Chhep Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia, the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has said.

The population of this species is possibly less than 50 in Cambodia. These nest discoveries give hope that conservation efforts may save this species from extinction.

Global vulture populations are declining at an alarming rate.

Cambodia’s three vulture species — red-headed, slender-billed and white-rumped — are all listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as critically endangered, indicating a very high risk of extinction in the wild.

Cambodia supports the largest population of vultures in Southeast Asia, but there are only a few hundred vultures left in the country, say experts.

India is home to four critically endangered vulture species — the red-headed, white-rumped, long-billed and slender-billed; two near threatened species — bearded and Himalayan griffon; and one endangered — the Egyptian vulture.

The cinereous vulture, a wintering migrant to India from Europe, is also facing the threat of extinction.

BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society) attributes the decline of these scavenging birds that help in maintaining the ecological balance in the nature to the extensive use of diclofenac in treating cattle. The vultures that consumed the carcasses of animals treated with diclofenac died with symptoms of kidney failure.

As part of SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction), the BNHS is breeding endangered vulture species in captivity in three centres in India. It’s also later planning their reintroduction into the wild.

Similarly, as part of the Bird’s Nest Protection Programme, the WCS has employed six community members to protect the nests of these vultures.

Local people are now incentivised to protect the critically endangered species until their eggs hatch and the chicks are able to leave the nest — as opposed to taking the chicks to sell.

“I am eager to protect vulture nests because I can generate income to support my family and I’m able to join in conserving this species that is now very rare,” said Soeng Sang, a red-headed vulture nest protector.

“I have spent much of my time staying near the nest site to prevent any disturbances or harm. I am committed to saving this bird for the next generation.”

Increased levels of hunting, forest loss and land conversion, land encroachment and selective logging negatively affect the birds through loss of nesting sites and reduction in prey availability.

In addition, at least 30 vultures were killed over the past five years in Cambodia due to widespread indiscriminate use of deadly poisons by villagers in and around water sources to catch birds and other small mammals, which is severely affecting the vulture population.

“The red-headed vulture is a very rare species; they are facing a high risk of extinction,” WCS’ Vulture Project Coordinator in Chhep Wildlife Sanctuary, Tan Sophan, said.

“Besides nest protection, we also organise ‘vulture restaurants’ to feed vultures every month.”

Vulture restaurants are sites where the birds are periodically provided supplementary feedings. This activity is a collaboration between the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Fishery and a consortium of NGOs, and also doubles as a tool to raise awareness of their importance to the landscape and human health.

“In addition, tourists visiting the restaurant with Sam Veasna Centre have significantly contributed to saving the species and improving local livelihoods,” Sophan added.