Manual Vultures Also Die

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By Debora MacKenzie.

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The catastrophic decline of griffon vultures in south Asia is being caused not by a mysterious disease, as had been thought, but a common painkiller given to sick cattle. If the treated animal dies and is eaten by vultures, a single meal can be enough to kill the bird.

The scientists who made the discovery now want the drug banned from veterinary use and are holding a meeting next week with officials from Nepal, India and Pakistan. Griffon vultures are huge scavengers and used to be ubiquitous in south Asia.

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But their population has declined drastically since the mids, and one species is near extinction. As a result, animal carcasses rot outside villages, attracting rabies-ridden packs of dogs. The Parsee religious community in India is also in crisis, as it disposes of its dead by feeding them to vultures. Lindsay Oaks, a veterinary microbiologist at Washington State University in Pullman, and colleagues looked for pathogens or toxins in freshly dead vultures from breeding colonies in Pakistan and Nepal by sending tissues back to US laboratories for analysis.

Vultures that died following pesticide poisoning or collisions had no uric acid. Rapid urbanization in parts of Africa has displaced vultures from their habitat.

More than 500 endangered vultures die after eating poisoned elephant carcasses

A massive growth in wind farms across the continent is also a concern—the birds often collide with the turbines. Vultures are also also targets for poachers, who sell their parts to people who use witchcraft.

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  • The birds are known for their tremendous eyesight, and many believe their body parts can be used to see into the future. Relatively little is known about the illegal and secretive trade.


    The scavengers also die after feeding on carcasses left behind by poachers. Illegal hunters poison the corpses to throw off law enforcement, which use circling vultures as a beacon for illegal activity. In July in Namibia, Ogada came across what she called a horrific scene: About dead vultures surrounded a pesticide-laden elephant carcass.

    Poachers had poisoned the birds and left their bodies to rot. The impacts of disappearing vultures may be devastating in developing countries of Africa, where disposing of potentially harmful carcasses is left to nature, Ogada notes.

    Turkey Vulture

    As an example, look no further than India, Allan says, where vulture populations collapsed by more than 96 percent in the s. Poisoned by diclofenac, a drug used to treat sick livestock, India's vultures died en masse of liver failure.

    Without the aerial cleanup crew, feral dogs took up the role as scavengers. As the dog population exploded, so did diseases such as rabies— of the 55, annual rabies deaths worldwide, 20, occur in India. Ogada says the same could potentially happen in West Africa, where human populations are high and vulture populations are dismally low.


    The first step, Ogada says, is for governments in Africa to regulate pesticide use, for instance by creating a registry that can limit the amounts a person can buy at one time. She and other researchers have also hosted programs on pesticides' dangers for local people in Africa. Follow Matt McCall on Twitter.

    Read Caption. Why Africa's Vultures Are "Collapsing Toward Extinction" A demand for vulture parts in witchcraft, as well as poisoning and urbanization, has caused a nearly 90 percent decline in the scavengers' populations.

    12 amazing facts about vultures - Discover Wildlife

    As a result, vulture populations are plummeting. Photograph by Andre Botha. But there are various threats beyond pesticides, he notes.