Disappearing Vultures
July 5, 2011 8:43 PM   Subscribe

India's vultures are vanishing. Populations of three species on the sub-continent have plummeted since the 1980s from 50 million to less than 60,000. Their disappearance could lead to widespread increase in human diseases.
posted by binturong (24 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
There was a post on this subject in 2002, when the cause of the decline was unknown. Now, the population crash has been attributed to painkillers fed to livestock and consumed by vultures feeding on the dead animals. The drug causes kidney failure in the birds.
posted by binturong at 8:48 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Who vultches the vultures?
posted by bicyclefish at 8:55 PM on July 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

My understanding is that corpses simply do not spread disease. We think they do. But they do not.
posted by effugas at 8:58 PM on July 5, 2011

Well, not until they become zombies, of course.
posted by eriko at 8:59 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Scientists have estimated that, as recently as the 1980s, thirty million white-backed vultures once coasted on thermals above South Asia. Now there are eleven thousand.

Jesus, that's depressing.
posted by rtha at 9:01 PM on July 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

Vultures once rid the landscape of diseases such as tuberculosis, brucellosis, and foot-and-mouth. Their strong stomach acids and high body temperatures allow them to ingest an anthrax-infected carcass and suffer no ill effects. The fear is that with vultures gone, and the human handling of dead livestock increasing, that these diseases could spread among both animal and human populations.
posted by rtha at 9:03 PM on July 5, 2011

Jesus. This infestation of psychotic, dangerously intelligent apes that Earth's got going on right now is really fucking everything up. This world was much better without us.
posted by milarepa at 9:22 PM on July 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Even though use of painkiller diclofenac on animals has been banned in India, it continues to take a toll on the vulture population in the country.

Heavy content of diclofenac, which is poisonous for vultures, has been detected on samples of dead animals during tests carried out by the Indian Veterinary Research Institute.


As a female vulture hatches only one egg in a year, the process of increasing the bird''s population is very slow, Sharma said.

posted by furiousxgeorge at 9:22 PM on July 5, 2011

Hmm. Never mind. Human corpses have little ill effect. This is something else.
posted by effugas at 9:30 PM on July 5, 2011

It is horribly ironic that conservationists now have to supply specially-raised drug-free goats at great cost to feed captive vultures in a breeding program designed to increase the population of these wonderful, once-ubiquitous birds.
posted by binturong at 9:54 PM on July 5, 2011

The three species of Gyps vultures were dying from ingesting livestock carcasses treated with diclofenac, a mild painkiller akin to aspirin or ibuprofen. After taking it themselves for decades, Indians began using it in the early 1990s to ease the aches of their farm animals’ cracked hooves and swollen udders.

Fascinating that.

Strange and sad to think of the eco-system in India so messed up. I feel really badly about that.

Indian vultures. I hope the Lammergeiers survive. I used to watch them waft around on the thermals in the mountains. Such elegance!

Once, in Delhi, after a storm, I adopted a wounded vulture for a month, nursed it back to health. I looked more like a huge hawk. It was a bird called a Kite. It was a lovely creature, sensitive and gentle with me, in spite of its capacity to snap off any of my fingers when I daily pinched his cheeks to spoon food into his beak until he was strong enough. I've felt a fondness for vultures since and am saddened to hear they are dying out in India.
posted by nickyskye at 10:06 PM on July 5, 2011 [13 favorites]

Finally, something we can export.
posted by clavdivs at 10:20 PM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

"...some scientists have started calling these species “functionally extinct” and refer to their own research as “monitoring to extinction.” "

"Monitoring to extinction" is a profoundly terrible phrase.
posted by fractalnegative at 10:28 PM on July 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

I am always astonished and depressed by the speed with which these extinctions occur. To lose millions of birds in such a short time frame is horrifying. And reading about scientists who can do nothing else except help the last few survivors as the species slips into oblivion... I just can't imagine what that would be like: to care so much for a species and know that they were doomed in your lifetime, or in the next 20 years.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:37 PM on July 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

* It looked more like a huge hawk.
posted by nickyskye at 11:15 PM on July 5, 2011

I looked more like a huge hawk. It was a bird called a Kite.

Oh boy, love them too! There used to be a hill in my school we used to call the Eagle Hill where these birds used to circle quite often. I've spent most of my childhood staring at these birds soaring into the sky; always a delight to watch and observe them against the setting sun.
posted by the cydonian at 1:49 AM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some positive news then: the re-introduction of the red kite into the UK is the bird conservation success story of the last decade. And it used to be known as the shitehawk. Awesome.
posted by ninebelow at 4:04 AM on July 6, 2011

It's like seeing the frogs die. It's just an indicator of the overall health of the biome. We've known that this place has been in trouble (pressed towards a new, jellyfish-infested equilibrium) for some time.
posted by kpdawes at 5:15 AM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's too much fatalism here, and it's dangerous:

1 - There are "general state of the biome" problems, and they're miserable and hard and depressing. Marine dead zones, plastic pollution, phenology shifts.

2 - This isn't a "general state of the biome" indicator - it's a very specific, very dangerous threat that has a defined, well-understood cause and that we can do something about.

3 - In this case, outreach really works: changing "veterinary" practice (it's not vets, it's usually small, poor farmers) is completely possible, and vultures do surprisingly well in captivity. Keeping a nucleus population alive in the face of catastrophe is actually something we're quite good at. It's creeping habitat loss and preventing mineral/hydrocarbon extraction we're crap at.

4 - It's just a thought, but if you want to see what can be done, have a look at SAVE, and maybe give it some cash to help. The WCS have a sister project in Cambodia to pre-empt the same thing happening there.

Vultures are a really good example of where we can really make a difference.
posted by cromagnon at 7:50 AM on July 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

"It's creeping habitat loss and preventing mineral/hydrocarbon extraction we're crap at."

Don't forget pollution and overfishing! Do I need to provide examples? /fatalism
posted by sneebler at 8:03 AM on July 6, 2011

To be clear, I'm not fatalistic about our ability to solve, reduce, prevent or remediate any of these problems. What I am is convinced that our current political and economic systems are fundamentally unable to address these issues in a realistic and long-term way. The only way to get the attention of these systems is to present an immediate and recognizable threat to continued economic growth, and that isn't happening. People starving? No problem - that's been going on for years. Rainforests and oceans being wiped out? Hey, it's not MY bottom line! Climate change? Piffle! The climate has changed before - what's the big deal?
posted by sneebler at 8:15 AM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have a look at the dead zones link - the most serious effects of pollution on biodiversity are those that lead to widespread habitat loss. Not that bioaccumulants and gender-changers aren't bad news, but they'll not take out species over the next 50 years at anywhere near the same rate.

But this is all semantics. Yes, current growth mechanisms are antithetical to biodiversity. No, noone has a viable alternative at present. Thing is, if we don't play the hand we've got now, by the time enlightenment arrives we'll not have much to look after.

There's a place for grand statements of the future - TED talks, probably. But there's vital grunt work to be done every day.
posted by cromagnon at 8:44 AM on July 6, 2011

posted by koinonia at 10:25 AM on July 6, 2011

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