If any teenager felt misunderstood by their parents whilst they cried over school-crushes and screamed that they had 'no clothes to wear' to the cinema, they have nothing on these guys - they must be the most misunderstood birds in existence, but now it looks like these ecologically essential and actually beautiful animals could head the same way as the Dodo, Tasmanian Tiger, Stellar Sea Cow.. Need I go on?
During my trip to Painted Dog Conservation in Zimbabwe with Wildlife Vets International, we made a short detour to visit the Vet at Victoria Falls National Park, Dr. Foggis. Here, we were lucky enough to meet 'Judge' the resident White-backed vulture, who following a collision with a pylon can no longer soar.
Global vulture populations are seeing a declining trend currently, particularly the Indian subcontinent, Africa and Southern Europe. The effect of urbanisation has led to an increased risk of collision and electrocutions from power cables and wind turbines. Since vultures are always pre-occupied with spotting their next meal they are too busy looking down, not in front! In Southern Africa particularly, there has been an increase of intentional poisoning of vultures by poachers. This is because circling vultures are often the first and easiest sign of a carcass and can alert anti-poaching units to the exact location of illegal poaching activity.
Sometimes good intentions have unknown catastrophic consequences, and this is what has befallen international veterinary aid in India, Pakistan and Nepal. During the late '90's, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, called Diclofenac, was used liberally to treat pain in working livestock in these regions. It was a great way to improve the welfare of these cattle however, it transpired, these carcasses became extremely poisonous to vultures. Vulture are exceptionally fast at identifying carcasses and will descend in huge numbers, so a single carcass could feed numerous individuals. The effect of these carcasses had a snowball effect on population figures of vultures in these areas. In less than 10 years, these regions had lost over 90% of vultures populations, with some species like the white-backed vulture (gyps bengalenis) decreasing by 99.9% by 2007. Vultures are essential to the local biodiversity, their waste-disposal feeding habits might seem grim, but if they don't clean-up after everyone else - who does? Natural degradation of carcasses takes 3-4 times longer, the prolonged presence of these carcasses increasing the chance of other animals feeding on them, the increased transmission of disease from carcass to feeder or as a result of increased contact between carnivorous mammals. The build-up of carcasses can contaminate water sources and increase zoonotic disease transmission such as anthrax and rabies too.
So, ugly or not, vultures save lives and so we should save theirs - isn't that what friends are for?
Well.. The story doesn't end there as vultures, and all manner of flying creatures face a further risk in India. In Gujarat, the arrival of Spring is celebrated as part of a Kite-flying festival. This festival is a city-wide game to bring down opponents kites, by using glass-coated kite strings. Unfortunately, amongst the fun, thousands of birds are caught accidentally by the strings. The damage caused by the glass-coated strings often has devastating consequences. Due to the small population of vultures, these are infrequent victims, however pigeons and Indian black kite are commonly seen. The bones and ligaments of the birds wings are easily broken and result in the poor bird plummeting to the ground. Fatalities are unavoidable in these situations, but often the birds survives the fall and its future survival relies on a small number of veterinary charitable organisations. In Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, WVI have been working with Jivdaya Charitable trust (JCT), to provide the specialised veterinary care to treat and rehabilitate these birds. This festival results in unimaginable numbers of injured birds and the hospital is always in-undated. WVI are desperately trying to raise funds for this coming years efforts, so please if you feel for these birds, donate here!