Source: BBC News
By Matilda Battersby
Have a bone to pick with the scraggy vulture? Just remember they’re vital as nature’s waste disposers – which is why their decline is very bad news…
Vultures, with their big, ungainly wings, beaky faces and fondness for scavenging on dead meat, have a terrible reputation. They are seen as harbingers of death, circling dying animals, ready to pick at decaying flesh. But they don’t deserve a bad press. They offer a vital service by feasting on carrion, protecting us from diseases spread by rotten meat and saving us the expense of cleaning it up. Yet their existence has been threatened thanks to us. In Southeast Asia, 98 per cent of vultures have been wiped out in 20 years. The white-backed vulture, long-billed vulture, slender-billed vulture, the Indian vulture and the Himalayan griffon are now officially ‘critically endangered’. The white-rumped vulture has dwindled from 80 million in the 1980s to only a few thousand today, a decline of 99.9 per cent.
The vastly reduced species are all Gyps, a genus of Old World vultures, typically with bald heads, beady eyes and a cloak of dark plumage. The kind you see feasting hungrily in cartoons. So, why have these creatures been dying in their droves in India? It’s mostly due to modern veterinary medicine. Vultures consume the carcasses of farmed animals, exposing them to a drug that gives them fatal kidney failure. That drug is diclofenac, prescribed to cattle to ease joint pain and keep them going for longer. This first came to light in 2003 when there were reports of the near-extinction of the white-backed, slender-billed and Indian vultures due to unknown causes.