This is a story about vultures

To many humans, vultures are not nature’s cutest animals. Most vulture species have bald (feather-free) heads. This is an adaptation for their ecological lifestyle of eating dead and rotting animals. Not having feathers helps keep potentially diseased prey tissue from collecting on a vulture’s head.  

What vultures eat and how they eat it may be gross to humans, but it helps make the world that we live in much cleaner and safer than it would be otherwise. 

A historical picture of vultures in Delhi. Photo by Goutam Narayan.

Vulture populations crash

In India and nearby countries there was a huge crash in vulture populations during the 1990s and early 2000s. India has many cattle, and most of these cattle are not eaten by people. When the cattle die, vultures are the ecological clean-up crew that clear away their bodies.

Vultures scavenging on dead cattle. Image courtesy of IUCN Bangladesh.

Feral dogs explode in number

After the vultures disappeared in India, an interesting thing happened. The feral dog population exploded from an estimated 7 million to 29 million over an 11-year period. Feral dogs are dogs that are not cared for by people and live like wild animals. Feral dog numbers increased because the dogs had a new food source – the dead cows that vultures were no longer eating.

Without human care and vaccines, feral dogs catch rabies and other diseases. Millions more feral dogs in India led to a large increase in dog bites to people, causing rabies. Nearly 50,000 people died of rabies in the period when vultures disappeared and the feral dog population exploded. This increase in rabies cost many billions of dollars to fight. The medical and economic importance of vultures to humans became very clear.

Ecosystem services provided by the vultures. Photo by Nikita Prakash.

Why did the vultures disappear? 

The vulture decline was noticed across not just India, but also in Bangladesh.  Researchers found that a veterinary drug called diclofenac – used to treat cattle starting in the 1990s – causes kidney failure in vultures. When vultures ate cattle treated with diclofenac they died in huge numbers. 

Medicine banned to protect vultures

In order to protect vulture populations, the use of diclofenac in cattle was banned across India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

The populations of several vulture species in Bangladesh have stabilized over the past few years. Monirul H. Khan, professor of Zoology at Jahangirnagar University, hopes that populations of vultures in Bangladesh will start increasing now that their drop in numbers has been halted. In India, too, some vulture populations are stabilizing.

Government departments and conservation groups in India and Bangladesh have set up conservation plans to help vultures recover. Beyond banning the medicine diclofenac, vulture conservation strategies include captive breeding, protecting important habitats, and increasing community awareness about the importance of vultures to the environment and people too.

Protecting vultures is important. Vultures help protect human health. These scavengers provide an essential service by cleaning up dead animals and reducing the spread of disease.

Long-billed vulture nesting at the Jatayu Centre. Photo by Nikita Prakash.

This story is based on articles by Abu Siddique and Prerna Singh Bindra, published on Mongabay and Mongabay India. The images were originally published in these articles:

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