Despite their bad reputation, vultures are essential in maintaining pastoral ecosystems. Today, they are in danger of extinction.
This is why, every year, on the first Saturday of September, a day of awareness is dedicated to them: International Vulture Awareness Day. This day aims to raise awareness by making people aware of different species of vultures; the threats that they face; and the steps that are taken to address these threats.
EVI is taking this opportunity to highlight the key role of these birds of prey in our ecosystem, in order to rectify false information and to remind ourselves of the causes of their close call with extinction.
What are vultures?
The vulture is a bird, or more specifically a bird of prey. They are scavengers, and therefore feed off carcasses. As stated by the LPO (the League for the Protection of Birds):
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 easily cleans itself. The claws are not very strong and not adapted to grip like those of the golden eagle. Lastly, their digestive system enables them to assimilate putrefied meat without any problems.
The word “vulture” actually encompasses twenty different species which can be found everywhere on earth, except for the North and South 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: an unloved bird
In our collective psyche, vultures inspire fear and are associated with death. The word “vulture” can also be applied to a person, illustrating the animal’s bad reputation. However, it hasn’t always been this way. In Egyptian mythology, vultures symbolized motherhood and were a passport for the afterlife, while in Aztec astrology, they symbolized luck.
Unfortunately, this is no longer the case today and their bad reputation goes some way to explain the different accusations that may have been brought against them. In Europe, they are often accused of preying on flocks, especially in the Basque country, where an 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 » (“injuries attributed to the Griffon Vulture on domestic flocks in the French Pyrenees”) published in 2010 showed that in the vast majority of cases, the vulture usually preys on dead animals. Some attacks have been observed on live animals, but they were generally sick or in physiological distress, for example when giving birth. Few attacks on healthy animals have been observed.
These attacks are the subject of much debate, and a new study in the senate is being undertaken
Their fundamental role: a natural renderer
In any case, we must not forget the fundamental role of vultures in terms of the health of the human population. In fact, by consuming carcasses, these scavengers play 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 renewal of organic matter. Vultures are also important economic allies for stock breeders, because when their flocks are in remote areas, the vultures are the only creatures able to quickly clear away the carcasses so as to avoid the spread of epidemic diseases within 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 environmental advantages: by limiting the transportation of carcasses and their incineration.
There are other types of scavengers: crows, rats or stray dogs, and they are sometimes substitutes for the vultures. Nevertheless, they live close to human beings and are thus likely to start epidemics. For instance, between 1996 and 2006, a significant number of stray dogs in India contributed to the spread of rabies, killing 48,000 people.
If vultures keep disappearing, other epidemics of a similar scale could occur.
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 factory. So, Indian scientists suggest that it would be more prudent to invest in the preservation of vultures rather than in the creation of new rendering factories.
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 scavengers. According to the scientists, the vultures are the most threatened birds on earth. 6 out of 11 species of African vultures are in danger of becoming extinct, according to the UICN.
There are multiple reasons for this threat of extinction, but all of them have a common factor: man. For example, in France, the vulture was totally exterminated 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, changes in their habitat, rendering control, but mostly poisoning.
In fact, in 2004, India recorded the disappearance of 95% of its vulture population in three years. Pakistan and Nepal are also affected by this issue. After much research, the source of this poisoning has been established as diclofenac: an anti-inflammatory used by veterinarians primarily when treating cows and pigs. Vultures die after eating carcasses previously 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 led by associations for animal protection and the guidance by the European Medicines Agency of the dangers for vultures.
However, according to the IFAW, Janice Weatherley-Singh, the WCS Director for European Policy, declared:
“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 studies are insufficient.”
Jose Tavares, Director of the Vulture Conservation Foundation, added:
India is again leading the way, with the recent ban on multi-dose medicines made from diclofenac for humans. This is a breakthrough in the fight to eliminate this product from the ecosystems and save the vultures. Europe now needs to follow this precedent and ban the veterinary products now legally sold in Spain, Italy and many other EU countries.
Vultures are also poisoned by people voluntarily. For example, poachers have recently taken to poisoning the carcasses of the animals they have killed in order to avoid vultures being attracted to them; a sign that would alert the guards of their crime.
There are numerous poachers 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. This is just one more poisoning case in a country where this issue is now incredibly widespread.
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.