White-rumped Vulture

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Vultures are in trouble across the world. Of the 21 species included in this category, 8 are threatened with extinction and 3 more are considered “near threatened” by the IUCN’s Red List. But few have declined as dramatically as the Asian white-rumped vulture. Once among the more abundant large birds of prey, numbering in the tens of millions, white-rumped vultures are now down to fewer than 10,000 birds.

On wings spanning almost seven feet and characterized by white undersides, white-rumped vultures can soar to 9,000 feet. Like all vultures, the birds are scavengers that dispose of animal carcasses that would otherwise contaminate land and water and pose a risk of disease.

Asian white-rumped vultures range from Pakistan to Vietnam and have been reported in Afghanistan and Iran. They are considered extinct in southern China and Malaysia, and one of the most viable populations lives in the northern and eastern plains of Cambodia. WCS leads the Cambodia Vulture Conservation Project, a collaboration between various NGOs and governmental agencies, to help preserve this stronghold for three critically endangered species: the white-rumped, slender-billed, and red-headed vultures.

Fast Facts

Scientific NameGyps bengalensis
  • Asian white-rumped vultures socialize in flocks and nest in tall trees or cliffs, often near urbanized areas. Usually, the male gathers the twigs and the female arranges them to build the nest.
  • Asian vultures were once ubiquitous in South Asian cities.
  • Their decline has dealt a blow to India's small Parsi ethnic minority, who are prohibited by their religion from burying or burning their dead, and depend on carrion-eating birds to help dispose of corpses.

Challenges

Asian white-rumped vultures have dramatically declined since the 1990s, in part due to loss of habitat and nesting grounds, primarily a result of urbanization. As populations of large ungulates and herds of free-ranging cattle have declined, vultures have also lost their food supply. But the greatest threat comes from South Asian farmers’ use of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac to treat their livestock, which causes renal failure in vultures that feed on cattle carcasses. Though the Indian government now prohibits manufacture of diclofenac, remaining stocks are still in use as enforcement of its ban is lax and alternative drugs are more expensive. Conservationists are concerned that the birds’ declines will be difficult to reverse and that some species may be extinct within a decade. The white-rumped vulture is one of the hardest-hit species; its populations have plummeted 99.9 percent within a decade. Further challenging conservation efforts: White-rumped vultures lay only one egg at a time.

WCS Responds

As leader of the Cambodia Vulture Conservation Project, WCS monitors the birds at “vulture restaurants” that have been set up across their range. Each month supplementary food is provided at the restaurants, allowing conservationists to count the birds. In addition, the researchers conduct annual vulture surveys, monitor their nests, and keep track of the presence of diclofenac in the country.

In 2009, WCS scientists helped their colleagues at the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity to save a poisoned white-rumped vulture that had fed on a carcass containing diclofenac. The bird subsequently recovered and returned to the Cambodian skies.

WCS is also surveying other regions, such as in Afghanistan, to determine whether diclofenac presents a threat to vultures.

From the Newsroom

Last Bastion for Asia's VulturesJune 25, 2012

With vulture numbers drastically down across the Asian continent, scientists hone in on protecting Cambodian populations, one of the last hopes for these critically endangered birds.

A Census for ScavengersJune 2, 2011

WCS begins our annual tally of vulture populations in Cambodia. After last year’s record numbers, hopes for these birds are on the rise.

Vultures Circling Back to Life in CambodiaSeptember 2, 2010

Researchers report record numbers of vultures in Cambodia after a drug nearly wiped out these scavenging birds in Asia.

Rare Vulture Returns to Cambodian SkiesMarch 18, 2009

After nearly dying from eating a poisoned animal carcass, a critically endangered white-rumped vulture was nursed back to health by wildlife veterinarians and conservationists from WCS and Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity.

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