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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Three Cheers for the Amazing Asian Vulture

 Asian vulture
Vultures gather for a meal. Photo by Himalayan Nature

In 2012, we funded the establishment of a vulture restaurant in Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve in Nepal. 

Vulture restaurants don’t serve vulture, they serve carcasses to vultures, and they are an important way to help recover vultures – in Asia, IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, classifies four species as Critically Endangered. 

This is largely due to a drug given to livestock.

 In Asian countries, people give diclofenac, a drug similar to aspirin or ibuprofen, to livestock to ease arthritic pain.

But vultures are hyper-sensitive to diclofenac. When they feed on livestock carcasses that had received the drug when they were alive, vultures die. And vulture population numbers have tumbled drastically since the drug came into use. 

IUCN says that the white-rumped vulture was at one time called “possibly the most abundant large bird of prey in the world,” adding that its overall population “almost certainly numbered several million individuals.” But since the mid-1990s, IUCN says, “it has suffered a catastrophic decline (over 99%) across the Indian subcontinent,” and IUCN puts the total population now at less than 15,000.

Similar declines have also hit the long-billed vulture, the slender-billed vulture and the red-headed vulture.

There is good news. Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan have passed laws to eliminate veterinary use of diclofenac, although it remains easily available in many areas, and diclofenac meant for humans is often given to animals.

 Asian vulture
Photo by Himalayan Nature

More good news: A 2012 study by The Peregrine Fund showed that the ban on the drug was letting long-billed vultures in Pakistan begin to recover.

But, “we have a long way to go to fully recover vulture populations throughout South Asia,” said one of the study’s authors, Munir Virani.

Vulture restaurants help vultures on their way to recovery. By providing diclofenac-free carcasses for vultures to eat at feeding stations, they provide safe food. The restaurants can also boost the local economy by drawing ecotourists.

In addition to the restaurant, we support advocacy and education to reduce the use of diclofenac.

Groups are also involved in captive-breeding and monitoring efforts to help Asian vultures and make sure they recover.

But why do we even care about vultures? Aren’t they kind of nasty birds?

Despite what we have learned from pop culture, vultures are not dirty, dumb villains that bring bad luck. These amazing birds are a vital part of the ecosystem.

By eating carcasses, vultures keep their environment clean. Since the meat they eat is often diseased or rotting, vultures have built-in resistance to many diseases, including ones that can spread to people, such as anthrax.

When vultures disappear, other scavengers move in, often with dangerous results. In India, feral dogs became the main scavenger, which brought a serious rabies problem.

British environmentalist Tony Juniper wrote the book What Has Nature Ever Done for Us?, and he says the loss of vultures cost India $34 billion over about a decade.

September 5 is International Vulture Awareness Day, and as raptor expert Virani said: “We have a long way to go to fully recover vulture populations throughout South Asia.” Let’s all remember these awesome and important birds and those dedicated to their recovery.

-- Matt Trott, External Affairs

Excellent article! Thank you!
# Posted By Erin Katzner | 9/2/15 12:21 PM

Please come and celebrate Vulture Awareness with our FWS partner the Santa Barbara Zoo. Saturday the 5th the "Condor Shadow" will be viewed at the zoo at 6:30-8:30 PM. There are events planned the day of the 6th at 11:00 to 3:00 at the Santa Barbara Zoo as well. http://www.sbzoo.org/
# Posted By Michael Brady | 9/2/15 3:55 PM
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