Vultures; Unique gifts of nature

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We are often exposed to vultures in childhood films where they are given a stereotype which is sadly not true to the amazing real life birds. Vultures are sociable, cautious, clean, intelligent and magnificent to watch in the air. They are vital to preserving balance to ecosystems. Vultures need our help and support all over the world RIGHT NOW!

"Vulture" is a name given to two groups of scavenging birds of prey."Old World vultures" are found in Europe, Africa and Asia.The New World vultures are found in North and South America.while there may only be 23 vulture species in the world each one of them fills a vital ecological niche.

Many of the world’s vulture species are under threat and are currently in decline for lots of different reasons. African vultures are being pushed to the brink of extinction due to illegal poisoning, electrocution and unsustainable harvesting for cultural uses. New World vultures like the Californian condor have also faced serious risk of extinction due to poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction.  

Vultures are the primary consumers of carrion in both Asia and Africa, they consume carcasses of both domestic and wild animals; thereby, cleaning the environment (Thakur et al.,2012). 

Vultures are perfectly evolved for a scavenging role and can reduce an adult cow carcass to bare bones within an hour. So much so that vultures are used as a way of disposing of carcasses in Asia. Placing carcasses of animals on the outskirts of villages was and still is common practice. The decline of vulture numbers in the Indian subcontinent means that there is now an abundance of meat and carcasses up for grabs across the region and other scavengers are now filling the void left by vultures.

The quantity of meat that vultures can consume and dispose of is huge! Vultures may only feed every 2-4 days on average they need to consume around a 1/3 of a kilogram of meat each day in order to fuel their need for flight. Over a year a single bird will consume around 120 kg. During the early 1990s there were an estimated 40 million vultures in India. These vultures would have consumed around 12 million tonnes of carrion a year!!!

South Asia has now lost 99% of the carcass disposal system that used to be taken by vultures. The result is that vulture declines have been associated with an increase in the number of feral dog across the region. Government statistics in India showing that feral dog populations that numbered 17-18 million in the early 1980s were close to a whopping 30 million in 2005. Large packs of dogs have replaced vultures that used to be present. The large packs of dogs are very aggressive and the Indian press has reported several cases of children and adults being killed by feral dogs.

There are major implications as a consequence of rising feral dog numbers , as well as the increase in rotting animal carcasses. The potential risk of both human and animal diseases is far greater than ever before, including diseases such as anthrax, brucellosis and TB. The increase of dog population also increases the spread of rabies in the region. India has the highest incidence of rabies in the World (c. 60% of all documented cases) and of the 20,000 cases each year 96% of these are a result of dog bites.

Vultures have provided a clean up service, free of charge for thousands of years. The cost of conserving vultures is a fraction of the billions spent on managing a rabies problem.

The Solution

Many Charities and Organisations have pledged to offer support to help restore the delicate populations in Asia. “SAVE” (Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction) consists of a partnership of organisations, all concerned with preventing the extinction of the critically endangered species of vultures and achieving their recovery.

SAVE co-ordinates recovery efforts across vulture-range countries, provides scientific and other advice, and helps with publicity and fund-raising. It is not a legally constituted body and does not have an office or independent staff. It is open to new partners.

If you would like to become involved at any level, please head to the SAVE website or contact the SAVE partners in your country.

SAVE is involved in a wide range of conservation activities across South Asia, ranging from breeding vultures in captivity so that their offspring can be released back in to the wild when the environment is free from diclofenac, an active advocacy programme targeting the vets and farmers using diclofenac and legislation controlling the manufacture and sale of veterinary drugs, in-situ conservation actions focused around the small but key remaining vulture populations in the wild, and an active research programme that underpins these activities and monitors their effectiveness. Follow the links below for more information on each of these five main areas of work. 

The unprecedented scale and speed of vulture population declines has left resident Gyps vulture species in a critically endangered state. In order to ensure each species’ survival it was necessary to bring them into captivity for breeding purposes. Removing diclofenac from the environment will allow the eventual recovery of vulture populations but this process, in practice, may take several years. Therefore it is essential to protect vultures in an environment where they will not be exposed to the drug. With help and support from the record breaking International Centre for Birds of Prey successful captive breeding will enable vulture numbers to increase, eventually allowing for the release of vultures back into the wild, once their food source in Asia is free of diclofenac.

The success of the Eurasian Griffon vulture Gyps fulvus captive breeding and release programme in Europe and the programme that saved the Californian Condor from extinction demonstrate that this approach will work. Without vulture conservation breeding centres, it is a very real possibility that resident Gyps vultures will become extinct across South Asia. 

Work on creating Vulture Safe Zones has been lead by Bird Conservation Nepal, with further efforts being undertaken in Gujarat, India. In initial efforts at one breeding colony close to Chitwan National Park has led to local increases in numbers of nesting birds in the three years that the project has been running, with numbers of nesting pairs increasing from 17 to 45 pairs. This conservation effort is primarily focused on removing all available stocks of veterinary drug diclofenac from the areas surrounding the breeding colony and replacing this with the vulture safe drug meloxicam. At the site close to Chitwan over US $2,000 of meloxicam has been swapped to replace diclofenac.

The diclofenac/meloxicam swapping work is followed up with an education and awareness programme. Raising the profile of vultures in the local community so people appreciate a vulture’s ability to clean up carcasses and therefore help reduce the risk of disease and the increasing numbers of feral dogs. Workshops are held with farmers, vets and pharmacists to make sure they know of the risks associated with the use of diclofenac. Interest from national and international tourists to visit and watch vultures also provides a further economic incentive for local communities to protect their vultures and ensure diclofenac is not used in the surrounding district, and viewing hides are being set up at some sites.

The final element of the programme is to attract vultures in to and to retain vultures within the safe area through the provision of regular and safe food supply in the form of a "Jatayu Restaurant” or Vulture Safe Feeding Site (VSFS). Safe food has been provided by establishing a cow shelter in the villages surrounding the vulture colonies. These farms buy old cattle at the end of their working lives that are otherwise destined to be sold to cattle traders (for use as meat) or else abandoned by their owners in forest land or outside villages. In Nepal, old cattle can be purchased for around US $2 and many animals are given to the project, as it saves local people from otherwise feeding or abandoning an animal that is otherwise a burden. 

The cattle are housed in purpose built cow sheds and herded to fields on community owned land in the village where they can graze. No cattle are killed and a project veterinarian ensures their welfare with regular checks and if necessary medical treatment with the notable exception of never using diclofenac! The animals die a natural death from old age and these carcasses are then skinned (providing an important income to the project to pay the cattle herder and purchase more old animals) and the safe drug free carcass is then placed out for vultures to feed upon. Flocks of over 150 vultures are now regularly seen at the VSFSs in Nepal that have followed the approach outline above. 

African vultures

Six of Africa’s 11 vulture species – the continent’s largest and most recognisable birds of prey – are now at a higher risk of extinction, according to the latest assessment of birds carried out by BirdLife International for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™.

The main causes of the drop in African vulture populations are thought to be indiscriminate poisonings (where the birds are drawn to poisoned baits), the use of vulture body parts in traditional medicine and deliberate targeting by poachers as the presence of vultures can alert authorities to illegally killed big game carcasses. Six species of African vultures have seen their conservation status change very recently :

·Hooded Vulture - Endangered to CRITICALLY ENDANGERED

·White-backed Vulture - Endangered to CRITICALLY ENDANGERED

·White-headed Vulture - Vulnerable to CRITICALLY ENDANGERED

·Rüppell's Vulture - Endangered to CRITICALLY ENDANGERED

·Cape Vulture - Vulnerable to ENDANGERED

·Lappet-faced Vulture - Vulnerable to ENDANGERED

Five other species of vulture are also found in Africa. The Egyptian Vulture is already classified as Endangered, with the Bearded Vulture and Cinereous Vulture listed already as Near Threatened. Just two species that occur in Africa are still regarded as Least Concern, the Griffon Vulture and the mainly vegetarian Palm-nut Vulture. It is important to add that other factors play a role in the decline of Africa's vultures. These include habitat loss, human disturbance and collisions with wind turbines and electricity power lines (as well as electrocution by the two).