NEW YORK (March 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 the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB) and returned to the skies of Cambodia.

The story is a small victory in a region where vultures of several species in Asia have become endangered due to a variety of causes. “Vulture populations across Asia have plummeted,” said Hugo Rainey, WCS Technical Advisor to the Cambodia Vulture Conservation Project. “Every bird that we can save is important not only for vulture species, but for the ecosystems that rely on these birds as critical scavengers.”

Researchers responded to the poisoning incident in the Stung Treng province of Cambodia, where vultures were feeding on a dead buffalo. Seven of the white-rumped vultures died, and local officials from the Forestry Administration and Ministry of Environment sent two sick birds—an adult and a juvenile— to WCS personnel in Phnom Penh for veterinary care. The birds were then sent to ACCB for rehabilitation. The use of poison for hunting and fishing is not unusual in the region.

The adult vulture recovered quickly and the two organizations prepared for its release by tagging both wings and banding one leg, enabling researchers to identify the bird at a distance. Once released, the adult flew into a nearby tree and was later seen feeding on a cattle carcass with other vultures.

“All of our observations indicate that this vulture has made a complete recovery and hopefully will help perpetuate the species,” said WCS veterinarian Dr. Priscilla Joyner.

The juvenile bird continues to be cared for by rehabilitators.

Cambodia has become one of the last strongholds for many vulture species in Asia, including the white-rumped vulture. In 2004, the Cambodia Vulture Conservation Project was established by a consortium of governmental agencies and NGOs in order to save vultures from extinction in the country. Members of the project include WCS, Birdlife International, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, WWF, ACCB and the Cambodian Government including the Ministries of Environment (MoE) and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) and the Forestry Administration (FA). Vultures in Cambodia are monitored regularly at “vulture restaurants” which have been set up across Cambodia. Each month food is provided at the restaurants and this supports conservation of vulture populations directly as well as allowing WCS to count the birds visiting the restaurants.

Pech Bunnat, Cambodia Vulture Conservation Project Manager said “Counting birds at restaurants allows us to assess if vulture populations are healthy. We count birds each month as well as holding a national census each year and protecting vulture nests. This is why the Cambodia vulture population is now increasing.”

In Southeast Asia, the causes of vulture decline are a decrease in food availability, the loss of nesting sites, and the use of poison for fishing and hunting. Yet in South Asia, the principle reason for the decline of vultures is the drug diclofenac, which was widely used as an anti-inflammatory agent for cattle in South Asia in the 1990s and is still used in some parts of the region. Vultures that feed on cattle carcasses also ingest the drug, which causes renal failure and death in the affected birds. As a result of the drug’s widespread use, the populations of many vulture species have declined by more than 95 percent on the Indian subcontinent, precipitating an ecological crisis. Populations elsewhere in Asia are so low that several species of vulture may go extinct unless vultures in Cambodia are saved.

With a range stretching from Pakistan to Vietnam, the white-rumped vulture was once considered one of the most abundant large birds of prey in the world. As a result of its precipitous population decline, the bird has been listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN’s Red List since 2000 along with three other vulture species.

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