In sharp contrast to the seed-eating songbirds he studied for his PhD, Flinders graduate Toby Galligan is now on a mission to save birds that live off the bodies of the dead.
After completing his PhD on the evolutionary ecology of Darwin’s small ground finch in 2010, Dr Galligan (pictured) took up a position with the UK-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), with the task of helping to protect vultures from chemical poisoning in Nepal and India.
Among the world’s most misunderstood creatures, South Asian vultures are now under significant threat – with three species listed as critically endangered – due to their susceptibility to diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug which is administered to ailing cattle in South Asia.
While vultures can consume bacteria-infested carcasses without repercussion, they have a particular sensitivity to diclofenac so when they feed on contaminated cattle carcasses their kidneys become clogged with uric acid, leading to visceral gout, renal failure and certain death.
Alongside a global network of conservation experts known as SAVE (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction), Dr Galligan and the RSPB are trying to halt the decline in vulture populations and provide an environment free from diclofenac and similar toxic drugs.
Dr Galligan said that despite a ban on the manufacture, sale, importation and use of veterinary diclofenac by the Indian, Nepali, Pakistani and Bangladeshi governments, the drug still remains the cure-all of choice among untrained veterinarians, which make up the majority of veterinarians working in these countries.
“Diclofenac came onto the market in the ‘90s and by 2000 the population of oriental white-backed Gyps vultures declined by 99.9 per cent – that is, one in every 1000 birds survived – which is an unprecedented rate of decline – even faster than the decline of the dodo,” Dr Galligan said.
“While the South Asia governments banned the manufacture and use of veterinary diclofenac in the early 2000s, many pharmaceutical companies circumvent the ban by selling diclofenac for human use in 30ml vials, which contain the right size dose for treating cattle,” he said.
Dr Galligan said SAVE and the RSPB were now trying to promote a vulture-safe alternative to diclofenac, known as meloxicam, among livestock owners, untrained vets and pharmacists, and was also advocating for a ban on the 30ml human-intended vials.
A number of “vulture safe zones” have also been set up to conserve the remaining Gyps populations, with a focus on raising community awareness and thereby clearing the environment of contaminated vulture food. In addition, the three critically endangered Gyps species are being bred in captivity for future release.
However Dr Galligan said the battle was far from over, with more research to be carried out on the susceptibility of the elusive red-headed vulture to diclofenac poisoning.
“Very little is known about the ecology, biology and threats to this species but what we do know for certain is that, like the three Gyps, the red-headed vulture is critically endangered and rapidly declining.
“I’ll be leading a satellite telemetry study of mature red-headed vultures so we can learn more about their ecology and if one of our tagged vultures dies, we will be able to locate the carcass and perform a post mortem which will provide the best evidence of the possible cause of decline.
“When we know what is causing the decline in this species, we can either incorporate it into existing conservation action for Gyps vultures or design specific conservation action.”