This day aims at raising public awareness and at presenting the different vulture species, the threats that hang over them and the steps that are taken to remedy those threats.
EVI is taking this opportunity to recall the key role of these birds of prey in our ecosystem, so as to set right the misinformation from which they are victims, and to recall the causes of their extinction.
What is a vulture?
Vultures are birds and more precisely, birds of prey. They are carrion eaters and therefore eat carcasses. Thus, as the LPO (Ligue de Protection des Oiseaux, League for the Protection of Birds) underlines it:
Their anatomy is adapted to their food: the beak is hooked so as to cut into the flesh, the neck is covered in a thin down which can be easily cleaned. The claws are not very strong and not adapted to grip like those of the golden eagle. To finish, their digestive system enables them to assimilate putrefied meat without any problems.
The name “vulture” actually encompasses twenty different species everywhere on earth, except for the two poles and Oceania. There are four different species in France: the Griffon Vulture, the Cinereous Vulture, the Egyptian Vulture and the Bearded Vulture.
The vulture, that unloved bird!
In our collective psyche, vultures are scary and associated to death. “A vulture” can also be applied to a person. This illustrates the vulture’s bad reputation. However, it hasn’t always been this way. In Egyptian mythology, vultures symbolized motherhood and were a passport for the hereafter while in Aztec astrology, they symbolized luck.
Unfortunately, it is no longer the case today and their bad reputation explains the charges against vultures. In Europe, they are often accused of preying on flocks, especially in the Basque country, where a new attack against a mare took place last April.
Yet, the LPO insists on the fact that vultures aren’t in any way prone to attack flocks. Moreover, the study « dommages attribués au vautour fauve sur le bétail domestique dans les Pyrénées françaises » (“damages attributed to the Griffon Vulture on domestic flocks in the French Pyrenees”) published in 2010 showed that the vulture usually preys on dead animals. Some attacks have been observed on live animals but they were generally sick or in physiological distress, giving birth for example. Few attacks on healthy animals have been observed.
These aggressions keep raising issues and a new senate study is in process.
Their fundamental role: natural renderers
In any case, we must not forget the fundamental role of vultures where our health is concerned. Indeed, by consuming carcasses, carrion eaters have a key role in preventing potential diseases from spreading and in making it easier for the detritivores (mushrooms, worms) to access the carcasses for the renewing of organic matter. Vultures are also important economic allies for the stock breeders, because when their flocks are in removed areas, the vultures are the only ones to be able to quickly clean the carcasses so as to avoid any spread of epidemic diseases on the rest of the animals. As it is stated in the Argumentaire et plan d’actions pour la conservation du vautour fauve en France published in 2011 (Arguments and action plans in favour of the preservation of the griffon vulture in France), stock breeders save around 400,000 Euros a year thanks to the vultures. Vultures also bring undeniable advantages: they limit the transportation of carcasses and their incineration.
There are other types of carrion eaters: crows, rats or stray dogs and they sometimes replace the vultures. Nevertheless, they live close to human beings and are thus likely to start epidemics. For instance, between 1996 and 2006, an important group of stray dogs in India contributed to spread rabies, killing 48,000 people.
If vultures keep disappearing, there might be other epidemics of that scale.
Finally, according to a recent study in India by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 600 vultures eat the same quantity as an average rendering plant. So, Indian scientists suggest an investment in the preservation of vultures rather than in the creation of new rendering plants.
The vultures as an endangered species: threats
A recent study published in Biological Conservation by two American scientists sounds the alarm about the situation of these carrion eaters. According to the scientists, the IUCN states that vultures are the most threatened birds on earth. 6 out of 11 species of African vultures are threatened with extinction.
Their extinction has multiple causes, but all of them have a common factor: man. For example, in France, the vulture has been totally eradicated last century because of man. There are vultures in France today only thanks to the programmes reintroducing endangered species.
Vultures must face many threats: traffic, electrocution, crashing into windmills, change in their habitat, rendering control, but mostly poisoning.
Indeed, in 2004, India records the disappearance of 95% of its vulture population from its territory in three years. Pakistan and Nepal have these issues as well. After a lot of research, the reason for this poisoning has been established as diclofenac. It is an anti-inflammatory used by veterinarians especially when they treat cows and pigs. Vultures die after having eaten carcasses treated with diclofenac. India and Pakistan have therefore banned the use of diclophenac. However, it has not been banned by the European Union. In 2015, the Member States of the EU decided that the anti-inflammatory could be controlled by vague action plans rather than banned for good, despite the campaigns for a total ban by associations for animal protection and the indications by the European Medicines Agency of the dangers for vultures.
Yet, according to the IFAW, Janice Weatherley-Singh, the WCS Director for European Policy, declares :
The scientific community is united in warning of the dangers of diclofenac to vultures. We are asking the European commission to enact a ban on veterinary use of diclofenac because “Action plans” and further study are not enough.
Jose Tavares, Director of the Vulture Conservation Foundation, adds :
India is again leading the way, with the recent ban on multi-dose vials of human formulations of diclofenac. This is a breakthrough to eliminate this vulture killing drug from the ecosystems. If only Europe could follow the way and ban the veterinary formulations now legally sold in Spain, Italy and a few other EU countries.
Vultures are also voluntarily poisoned. Indeed, poachers have recently taken to poison the carcasses of the animals they have killed so as to avoid the coming of vultures, a sign that would alert the guards.
Poachers are numerous in India and Africa and they keep killing vultures on a huge scale. This year, two lions, two jackals and 110 vultures died after having eaten from the carcass of an elephant which had been poisoned by poachers in the Kruger National Park in South Africa. It is one more poisoning case in a country where this issue is now significant.
Discover this invaluable species
International vulture awareness day is an opportunity to discover an important species in our ecosystem despite the dangers it faces. This day is an opportunity to shed light on the different action plans to protect vultures and help them thrive.
There will be numerous activities on September 4th: vantage points, exhibitions, conferences, field trips. These activities will take place in France until September 7th, so don’t hesitate to have a look at the LPO website to get some information about what is going on in your region.