Recently, the South Asian subcontinent has undergone an “avian scavenger crisis” after experiencing one of the most extreme vulture population declines ever observed, primarily due to indirect poisoning via veterinary pharmaceuticals. Similarly, many large predators such as tigers and wolves, which make up some of the most charismatic animals, are highly extinction-prone. In the context of maintaining critical ecosystem processes, predators contribute to trophic facilitation as they can increase natural carrion availability in the environment and reduce carcass detection times (Wilmers et al. 2003, Selva et al. 2005, Allen et al. 2014, Ripple et al. 2014) . South Asia is home to one of the world’s richest obligate scavenger assemblages. However, most scavenger research has focused on communities in the Americas, Europe and Africa.
As a doctoral researcher, I study patterns of distribution and diversity across a vast altitude and biome gradient, and the socio-ecological importance of scavengers’ ecosystem services. Specifically, my dissertation has focused on vertebrate scavenger diversity, community structure, the human-scavenger relationship, ecosystem service efficiency and related environmental/anthropogenic drivers in the Chitwan-Annapurna landscape of Central Nepal. In this context, I employ interdisciplinary techniques to survey scavenger guilds and their impact on human communities, which includes camera- trapping, social surveys and avian point counts. My work has been a product of invaluable collaborations with local scientists, conservation officials, and community members in Nepal, as well as other international colleagues.
Scavenger diversity, community structure, ecosystem service efficiency and related environmental drivers across a biome and altitudinal gradient
But why scavengers?
Scavengers provide a critical ecosystem service, as the “nature’s clean up crew”, through the consumption of decaying organic material in our environment. Nepal harbors an incredible diversity of vertebrate scavengers that include small mammals such as mongooses and martens, to canid species like foxes, wolves, including larger mammals like bears and the Bengal tiger - the list goes on! All these species share a common biological function, in scavenging, with varying degrees of contribution and occur across a vast network of communities.
Our study area exhibits substantial ecological differences with the areas most frequently sampled in this field, which includes a diverse scavenger guild, distinct biomes and a sharp altitudinal gradient. Hence, we pose a highly topical question regarding the extent to which, distinct and relatively uncharacterized, South Asian scavenger assemblages exhibit similar patterns of community dynamics and species-specific functional contributions as those observed in other regions.
Within this research line, I have focused on four main projects:
- Characterizing the vertebrate scavenger community across a 4,200 m elevation gradient, from lowland rainforests to the Himalayas, and identifying environmental drivers of diversity and community structure in this landscape
- Quantifying the ecosystem service efficiency derived from a network of vertebrate scavenger assemblages in South Asia (Central Nepal)
- Evaluating livestock farmers’ existing knowledge and perceptions of vertebrate scavenger species and their consequential benefits or detriments
- Determining the effects of food availability on the population dynamics of an obligate scavenger species, the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) and comparing their population abundance between Nepal’s Annapurna Conservation Area and the Spanish Pyrenees
Over time, and as I have acquired practical and technical skills in this field through various experiences, I am most interested in interdisciplinary work that involves community or ecosystem-level biodiversity research of ecological patterns and function, evaluation of ecosystem services, and socioecological studies of local ecological knowledge for effective conservation, and informed human-wildlife coexistence.