MAR 02 - In 1832, the English naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin described vultures as “disgusting birds with bald heads formed to revel in putridity.” Since time immemorial, vultures have been always been characterised as ugly, cruel, greedy creatures.
The term ‘vulture’ is also often used to refer to someone who exploits others.
But are these birds that ugly or cunning? If one looks at these birds carefully, you will see the other side of these magnificent birds. To hate vultures is similar to hating people who sweep the streets every morning and keep our cities clean or those who collect and manage garbage. Vultures are the nature’s clean-up crew. These birds play an important role in maintaining a clean environment through rapid consumption of animal carcasses and human dead bodies that undergo sky burials practised in some parts of Nepal and Tibet. By devouring filthy carcasses, they prevent the spread of disease. According to a study done in India the number of feral dogs increased resulting in more rabies cases due to a sharp decrease in the number of the vultures.
Birds in need
There are 23 species of vultures present in the world while nine of them are found in South Asia. Nepal supports all nine species: six residents and two migrant vulture species and one which was recently recorded. They are white-rumped vulture, Lammergeier, slender-billed vulture (critically endangered), Cinereous vulture, Egyptian vulture (endangered), Himalayan griffon, red-headed vulture (critically endangered) and Eurasian griffon. The long-billed vulture is the most recently recorded member of the species to be spotted in Nawalparasi, which makes Nepal rich in these birds. The population of three vulture species—white-rumped, slender-billed and long-billed—once stable and collectively numbering between 10 and 40 million have declined by 99 percent in the last 20 years. On monitoring vultures in Nepal, it has been found that there has been a 90 percent decline in their general population from 1995 to 2009. The near complete disappearance of these birds is generally considered to be one of the world’s most significant recent ornithological conservation catastrophes.
The next step
Various reasons such as deforestation, habitat loss, lack of appetite have caused the decline in the number of vultures. But the major cause for this catastrophic drop of vulture is the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, used as a
painkiller for cattle and humans too. In 2006, the Nepal government banned the use of diclofenac and recommended the use of meloxicam, a better and safer replacement.
Still, to ensure the safety of the remaining vulture population, in-situ conservation and availability of safe food for the birds along with conservation advocacy and awareness programs are equally important. Conservation activities, however, cannot succeed without the participation of people. Realising this, Bird Conservation Nepal, an NGO, along with other stakeholders began community-based conservation of vultures through
the establishment of a vulture restaurant in Nawalparasi back in early 2006. At present, there are six vulture restaurants in Nepal. Apart from providing
food to the birds, these sites have been developed as research centres for scientists to study the biology and ecology of these threatened species. Besides, it also provides an opportunity for eco-tourism, which eventually supports the livelihood of the local communities.
On the research front, studies on vultures are mostly limited to their distribution, current status and threats to these birds, excluding a very important aspect of conservation—behavioural science. The conservation of endangered species requires that we know enough about their natural behaviour in order to develop effective policies and protection measures. Failure to identify the behavioural needs of these endangered animals will undermine the species’ potential not only for survival but also for evolutionary change.
It is sad that these disappearing large birds have got little sympathy for their plight due to their macabre reputation in comparison to other animals like tigers or rhinos. But trust me, vultures are far more beautiful and intelligent than we think. The world will be a rather disgusting and greedy place without them.