Veterinary Work on White-Backed Vultures in Pakistan
Lindsay Oaks— 17 April 2001 — in Asian Vulture Crisis Share
Of his first field trip to Pakistan, Lindsay wrote……..
In November 2000 I traveled to Pakistan on behalf of The Peregrine Fund to determine if an infectious disease was affecting White-Backed Vultures (Gyps bengalensis) in Pakistan which could possibly lead to a population decline as is being reported in India. It was my first trip to Pakistan, and my first opportunity to observe old-world vultures in their natural setting. I arrived in Lahore late in the evening, and was met by my colleagues Dr. Munir Virani from Kenya and Dr. Pat Benson from South Africa who took me to the hotel for some badly-needed rest after a very long trip. As part of my supplies, I was carrying as baggage a "dry shipper," a container with liquid nitrogen needed to store and transport samples back to my laboratory. While this particular container is allowed on aircraft, liquid nitrogen, in general, is not, and despite endless pre-arrangements and notification (and clearance) by all the involved airlines it was still yanked off my flight in London as "dangerous cargo." I had planned to lay over in Dubai to rest up and visit old friends, but instead it turned into a marathon event in trying to recover "dangerous cargo" and ensure that it made it to Lahore when I did. Fortunately, this was ultimately successful, and I had learned much more about the cargo business than I ever wanted to know. Of course, I was then accosted by Pakistan customs, which entailed another series of very long and eventually successful negotiations to bring these supplies into the country!
We did find several dead vultures at Changa Manga, and although these were already dead for at least some days and not ideal samples, we were able to collect some useful specimens. From a preliminary examination, the cause of death was not evident and a diagnosis would have to await some laboratory analysis.
Later, as the day warmed up and thermals began to form, the vultures began soaring, rising up, and eventually dispersing in their daily search for food. One of the most memorable experiences of the whole trip was watching entire vulture colonies, which may be many hundreds of birds, all rising up together and out of sight in a giant column of soaring, circling birds. Another very memorable experience from Changa Manga was fruit bats. At home here in the USA, bats to me are small creatures about the size of a mouse – fruit bats on the other hand are enormous, and it is a very impressive sight to see hundreds of these Red-tailed Hawk-sized bats flying around your head!
One aspect of the trip that cannot be ignored is the courtesy and hospitality of the Pakistanis. Although you hear many scary things in the media about this part of the world, the greatest danger we experienced on this trip was being drowned in tea and smothered in food. It seemed that there is no purchase made or any business conducted, no matter how small, without tea and biscuits (cookies). Over the next few weeks, we spent many days on the road traveling throughout the Punjab in search of sick vultures. We saw many vulture colonies, some dead vultures to collect samples from, and were always welcomed even if we were considered a bit odd due to our interest in vultures! The only scary experience was the driving, which could only be described as completely ad lib with regards to rules. Traffic congestion in town prevented building up enough speed to be worrisome. However, on the open roads this was another matter, and "open" meant few enough other cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, motorbikes, rickshaws, pedestrians, livestock with and without carts, etc. to not prevent attaining speeds at which collision with any or all of the previous seemed inevitable. Driving the open road at night was truly memorable for an American used to orderly traffic flow!
This is a fascinating – and alarming! – turn of events in the life of vultures in Asia, and I am pleased to be a part of The Peregrine Fund’s remarkable effort to understand the cause of the vulture population crash as the first step towards helping ensure their survival as a species.
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