Flat-footed and massive-winged, they soar majestically on thermals -- some gliding more than 160 kilometres a day -- and keep the savannah's fine balance in check. Botfly larvae, rotting skin, anthrax and rabies -- they'll clean it all up. Tough and not afraid to fight, they'll swoop, pounce and caw at anyone getting in their way, including their much larger contemporaries, the hyena and jackal. Anyone except the human, it would seem, who are ironically the very reason they are on the verge of extinction.
In the 1990s, vultures were almost wiped out from India after mass poisoning by Dicloflenac, an anti-inflammatory painkiller that was widely used to treat cattle. The results were catastrophic. Without the vultures to clean up carcasses, stray dogs took up the role instead. As a result, dog and rat populations surged and went out of control, dog bites shot up, rabies proliferated and widespread deaths ensued, killing 47,000 people and costing India US $34 billion in health care. Consequently, vulture numbers of three key species in South Asia plummeted by more than 96 percent in less than 10 years. Specifically, the white-backed vulture fell by 99.7 percent in the same time frame. The balance, environmentally and economically, was thrown into shambles. The nation was in a disaster.
In Africa, the vultures are undergoing an alarming decline. After a key assessment in 2015, in one fell swoop, the conservation statuses of six out of 11 vulture species were upgraded to critically endangered.
The reasons for their deaths are varied, yet all are caused by both unintentional and intentional human action. Some of the vultures killed in Africa are for 'traditional' medicine: their body parts are used to create various 'cures' and are heavily used in superstition and witchcraft. The giddy heights at which they fly also means they collide with wind turbines and power lines, resulting in instant death by impact or electrocution.
The most significant cause of death for vultures in Africa, however, is by poison. Pastoralists will leave poisoned carcasses out in an attempt to kill predators including lion, jackals and hyena that could potentially prey on their livestock. Either the vulture eats the poisoned carcass directly, or a creature who has died from ingesting the laced bait.
Additionally, poachers of elephant tusks and ivory horn poison the vultures in an attempt to mask their tracks, which would otherwise be revealed by flying vultures circling overhead. These sharp-eyed birds can spot carcasses from a mile away, which is usually a blessing, but in these circumstances, is a complete curse.
The agent used is carbofuran, a cheap agricultural pesticide that is readily available across the continent. They come in purple granules and are sometimes called 'Lion Killer', and there's no surprise as to why- -- the poison is acutely toxic and when used in large doses can kill even the largest of predators or an entire colony of vultures. Sadly, many pastoralists continue to illegally misuse this poison in a desperate attempt to protect their livestock, the blood of their livelihood.
About eight years ago, the manufacturer, FMC, is said to have withdrawn the poison from shelves after the poisoning cases were revealed. Today, deaths by poisoning continue, so carbofuran, or a close substitute, continues to linger in the market while it sends the vultures as a whole into an alarming and critical decline. As cases of poisoning are hard to regulate and prove, conservationists have been calling for a complete ban of the pesticide.
In a region where many rural farmers live hand-to-mouth, carbofuran is a small price to pay for the added sense of protection and assurance. Ultimately however, the enormous price paid by nature is far-reaching and not only takes the lives of the vultures, but affects all the other creatures that share the same land. The poison remains in the environment for a long time. If it doesn't instantly kill wildlife, the run-off from the soil contaminates dams, rivers and drinking water, potentially killing large swaths of these creatures of the wild.
Addressing human-wildlife conflict through existing education and awareness campaigns must continue, and the regulation of the use of poisons should be legislated. Strengthened efforts to tackle the illegal wildlife trade of vulture parts for traditional medicine is also needed, as is ensuring that power and wind infrastructure is bird-friendly. Moreover, conversations that move this issue out of conservation and scientific circles and into the mainstream need to be made, where governments can show the political will to support organisations to literally save the lives of these birds.
This is no doubt an urgent conservation priority, but it needs to be highlighted as an economic development priority for it to gain more attention. If effective management plans to protect the vultures of Africa are not made soon, the prognosis is poor: within the next 50-100 years, the vultures of Africa will be gone. If that happens, and if the case in India is anything to go by, ecosystems may be ridden with disease and thrown into an unsustainable imbalance, thousands of creatures may be killed in its wake, and humans could suffer on a continent-wide scale.
Vultures are not often in the limelight, but they must be, now more than ever, in order to ensure they don't vanish, for the world will struggle to function without them.
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