They’re a symbol of death and decay. In our minds they’re morbid creatures that remind us of all that’s bad in the world, like the evil witch in a fairy tale.
That’s their fate; doomed to be outcasts because they can’t change their natures. Thank goodness for that.
The great thing about vultures
You know that anthrax outbreak that makes nervous people jumpy? Vultures take care of it. Afraid of squirming maggots? Vultures take care of that too; and the heaps of unseen noxious bacteria that would otherwise feast on dead things.
Their value, in an ecological sense, is that they quickly and efficiently take care of the dead. Because they are birds with incredible abilities, they can soar up high and spot a carcass from up to 6 km away, so they tend to be the first at a carcass. Long before the hyaenas and jackals have arrived to scavenge, the vultures have tucked in and niftily prevented the spread of disease. And other scavengers can’t take their place. In areas of India where vultures have all but disappeared, feral dogs step in to take over their cleaning up role. But this creates a new health risk because dogs, of course, carry rabies.
Kerri Wolter of the VulPro NGO in Hartebeespoort explains how, in an African savannah ecosystem, the different vultures work together to take care of an entire carcass. “The big, heavy Lappet-faced Vultures are the only ones equipped with the talent to open up larger carcasses. They effectively carve the meat for followers. The more aggressive White-backed Vultures soon chase off the bigger birds and quickly devour most of the carcass, including stomach linings and organs. They don’t eat the stomach contents though. Then the little Hooded Vultures take care of the leftovers on the outskirts, while the Lappet-faced vultures come back to join the Whiteheaded Vultures in nibbling the hard, sinewy bits. In areas where the Bearded Vultures live, they are the only ones that have developed a technique for cracking open bones to eat the nutritious marrow. Where the Beardeds are absent, our hyaenas finally step in to take care of this role.”
Are they still relevant?
Satisfying as it is to know that these birds are taking care of our natural ecosystems, the question is: do we need them in a modern world?
Kerri says most definitely. On the continent’s vast farmlands vultures often alert farmers to livestock that has been killed. And they take care of it before disease and bacteria becomes a problem for the rest of the flock or herd.
They’re also relevant in our economy. South Africa is the third most biodiverse country in the world and has a thriving eco-tourism sector. This is after all big 5 country, and the vultures both add to the value of the tourism experience and ensure that the natural ecosystem keeps working effectively and beautifully.
Even in urban areas they have value. Adaptable species such as the Hooded Vulture have become city janitors, cleaning up the mess in the streets of West Africa.
Not doing so well
While vultures still play a crucial role in modern society, their status is tenuous. The Asian Vulture Crisis, as it’s become known, saw three south Asia vulture species plummet to the edge of extinction in the 1990s, losing more than 95% of their population in just three years. At first researchers thought that the catastrophic death rate of the Slender-billed Vulture Gyps tenuirostris, the Indian Vulture Gyps indicus and the White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis, was the result of an infectious disease. However, after more research, they finally discovered the cause in early 2004: a commonly-used veterinary drug.
Diclofenac is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkiller that’s been used in human medicine for many years. It was only in the 1990s however that it entered veterinary medicine. It’s cheap and effective and as such, widely used. But as livestock treated with the drug died, vultures would feed on the carcasses and develop gout, from which they seldom recovered and quickly died.
Asked whether Diclofenac was a problem in South Africa, Kerri says most definitely. “We recently lost two of our birds, Cody and Squirt. We’re not yet sure what happened to them but we’ve discovered that the farmer we get our livestock carcasses from has unknowingly been using an antibiotic that contains Diclofenac. It could well turn out that this was the problem.” Farmers and vets don’t always realise the consequences. In the Asian crisis it was found that Diclofenac is lethal to vultures at just 10% of the recommended mammal dose. As such awareness and education are key to avoiding the problem locally.
Add to the mix all the other threats – habitat destruction, nest site disturbance, poisoning, electrocution, collision with power lines, harvesting for traditional medicine, a lack of food and drowning in farm reservoirs, and it’s no wonder that the IUCN’s Red List of Species classifies three of southern Africa’s nine vulture species as globally Endangered, while all but one are considered locally threatened. The Egyptian Vulture is considered locally extinct, the Bearded Vulture Endangered and only the Palmnut Vulture is considered to be of ‘Least Concern’, locally.
What we’re doing
It was with South Africa’s help that the first feasible replacement drug was found for Diclofenac. Dr Gerry Swan of the University of Pretoria led the team of researchers who discovered that Meloxicam is safe for vultures. The Indian government has already halted the production and sale of Diclofenac and is promoting Meloxicam as a replacement. Now it’s a matter of rolling it out across that country and into neighbouring countries.
In the meantime, Kerri’s organisation is working with several partners, including the local Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and the international RSPB, to better understand rehabilitation and breeding of vultures. The birds at her centre have been invaluable in the research to finding a safer alternative to Diclofenac, and she’s learnt an immense amount about effective rehabilitation, and has collected invaluable data. Her organisation will be in an excellent position to supplement the wild population should a crisis suddenly face South Africa’s vultures.
Kerri was recently nominated for the prestigious Tusk Conservation Awards. She attended the ceremony in the United Kingdom on 12 September, where Prince William, the award patron, announced the winners – Kenya’s Tom Lalampaa and Zimbabwe’s Clive Glenn Stockil. Kerri’s nomination highlights not only the value of her role in conservation, but also the value of vultures in conservation.
Kerri’s voice is laced with grief as she talks about her recently deceased education vulture: “Cody did a great deal to change people’s perceptions. People realised that vultures are intelligent and astonishingly well designed, with brilliant eyesight. They have unique personalities and even their voices are different.” Her message to the public is: “No species will be protected if people don’t like them, so I appeal to you to appreciate and understand vultures.”
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