Photo: Mike Baird (Flickr)
Vultures are scavengers that feast on the decaying flesh of dead animals they find lying in the open. Often vilified for their association with death and putrefaction, vultures actually play a critical role in ecosystem health by cleaning up carcasses that could harbor dangerous microorganisms, and thereby preventing the spread of disease.
The importance of vultures has sadly become very clear over the past decade in the Indian subcontinent, where their numbers have dropped suddenly and precipitously.
Three species of Asian vultures were placed on the international critically endangered species list, but this has had little effect. One species has seen a 99% decline in numbers since 1995.
What Caused This Massive And Sudden Decline In Numbers?
Many of the deaths have been attributed to the widespread use of Diclofenac, an antibiotic that was used commonly to treat sick livestock. Vultures feed on these livestock carcasses laced with the antibiotic.
Unfortunately Diclofenac is toxic to vultures, causing kidney failure at high doses and depressing the immune system of young vultures, making them more susceptible to disease.
Besides the very real threat of extinction for the vultures, their decline in numbers has had a serious impact on the health and safety of the humans living in the area.
The Indian government banned the use of Diclofenac in 2005, but it isn’t clear if the ban will be enough to save the endangered birds. Conservation organizations have started “vulture restaurants” where safe, uncontaminated carcasses are provided daily for vultures.
In Nepal, a similar “vulture restaurant” program saw a doubling of vultures in just two years, so there is still some hope that these vital scavengers can be rescued from the brink of extinction.