Killing the Vultures

Vultures are an essential group of scavengers that clear the land of dead animals, but human practices may be putting them, and ultimately us, at risk.


| April 2016



Vultures

Vultures are inadvertently being poisoned by eating animals that are loaded with antibiotics.


Photo by Mattiaath/Fotolia

Peter Doherty is a Nobel Prize-winning Immunologist, whose research points to the special role avian animals play in the environment at large. In his book Their Fate is Our Fate: How Birds Foretell Threats To Our Health and Our World (The Experiment Publishing, 2013), Doherty explains how human practices are impacting vultures and the unintended consequences that come from their population decline.

Vultures are not particularly lovable birds, and they don’t generally receive much favourable press. The cartoon image that comes to mind is of the guy crawling in the desert, tongue hanging out, no water in sight, while a couple of bald-headed, gloating vultures perch close by waiting for his final collapse and loss of consciousness.

But the fact of the matter is that vultures are, like the much more highly regarded bald eagles, essential scavengers that clean our landscapes. In Africa they share that role with some mammals, particularly the hyenas, though to be called a hyena is no more of a compliment than to be described as a vulture. The African vultures, and no doubt the hyenas, are thought to have coevolved with ungulates like the buffalo, wildebeest, springbok, giraffe and zebra. As the human population continues to expand, these native herbivores progressively lose habitat, and more and more are killed to provide ‘bush meat’. Some species (particularly wildebeest and buffalo) are now farmed, but with directed harvesting and management, many fewer will fall to lie in the field. The inevitable consequence is a decrease in vulture counts everywhere but in the well-monitored wildlife parks where the natural cycle of life and death is rigorously maintained. In addition, being big birds like the bald eagles, vultures tend to fly into high-tension wires and other obstacles that we place around the landscape.

The African bearded vulture is classified as endangered, while the more common white-backed vulture has been put in the near-threatened category by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Overall, though, the situation of vultures is much more dire in India, Nepal and Pakistan. The IUCN’s red-list category identifies the three species of Indian vulture as critically endangered, a situation that has developed with enormous speed over the past 20 years or so. Apart from threatening the birds themselves, this is also an extremely serious situation for the extensive rural populations of these countries. There are no hyenas on what is generally known as the Indian subcontinent, but there are many cattle, which are, partly for religious reasons, often left to die naturally. The vultures have traditionally provided a completely free and very efficient sanitation service.

As recently as 1992, there were vultures everywhere in the rural areas of the subcontinent. Then, before that decade was out, the numbers fell very rapidly. Both concerned individuals and local authorities started to look closely, and a number of US groups, like the Peregrine Fund based in Boise, Idaho, and the Washington State University Veterinary School at Pullman, quickly became involved. Dead birds were collected, preferably close to the time of their demise — that part of the world tends to be pretty hot on the whole, and as I learnt in my early days as a veterinary scientist, the fresher the better when it comes to doing a detailed post-mortem.

The investigating pathologists quickly established that once the usual causes of avian exit were excluded, otherwise healthy vultures were dying acutely of visceral gout. Gout? For most of us that evokes the image of some testy, bibulous, red-nosed old duffer with his painful, swathed foot and ankle parked on a cushioned footstool. Vultures aren’t likely to imbibe copious quantities of port and red table wine, so what could be happening here? Well, human gout is caused by the accumulation of needle-like uric acid crystals in joint tissues and blood capillaries. The ultimate breakdown product of the purines found in many foods, uric acid is normally excreted via our kidneys. Conditions associated with progressively compromised kidney function, like hypertension and diabetes, predispose to gout. If there’s no underlying genetic or other medical cause, gout may be more a consequence of a long-term over-indulgent, low-exercise lifestyle characterised by the excessive consumption of red meat and salt. Drinking a lot of good (or bad) wine can go with that, but alcohol may not be a primary cause. And even abstemious vegetarians aren’t totally protected, as an excess intake of fructose is also a risk factor.

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