Thursday, 12 December 2013

The vulture's story

As a conservationist I am often faced with shocking stories of species that are literally on the brink of extinction and I wanted to share one such story as I believe it needs all the recognition it can get.  This involves three species of Asian Vultures: oriental white- backed, slender billed and long billed vultures. All 3 are now critically endangered as their numbers have declined 97%, or 99.9% in the case of the oriental white-backed vulture in the last 10 years.  This is due to an unexpected culprit in the form of the drug diclofenac.  This is an anti-inflammatory drug used by farmers to treat their livestock and is unintentionally ingested by these vultures when they feed on the livestock carcasses.
White-backed vulture

Now, I understand that vultures do not inspire the most pleasant thoughts with many people as they are generally not the most aesthetically pleasing and their almost a symbol of death which is not exactly uplifting.  However, I personally disagree with this opinion as I believe it displays the dangerous concept of speciesism as seemingly more popular species are favoured even when their are others more desperately in need of our help.  Also, vultures contribute a very significant benefit to human societies and their decline is already beginning to have a negative impact.  For example, vultures are the natural caretakers of the environment and this prevents the spread of many diseases that would be a real threat to the poorer people in Asia.  One unprecedented example is there has now been a huge increase in the incidence of rabies, particularly in India.  This is because vultures compete with feral dogs for carcasses so without this source of competition populations of dogs have risen dramatically, along with the incidence of dog bites.

The economy is already taking a hit due to this decline in vultures, with the tanning and fertiliser industries being prime examples.  In a nutshell, more livestock carcasses have to be buried or incinerated as the vultures are not there to dispose of them naturally.  Therefore, less skins and bones are available for these industries.  A last note is that vultures draw tourists so the industry of ecotourism (sustainable tourism) will begin to suffer.

Thankfully, the campaign SAVE (Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction) is combing of the efforts of many organisations to help these vultures.  These efforts have led the governments of India, Nepal and Pakistan all banning the use of diclofenac and a safe drug meloxicam has been produced as a replacement.  

Long-billed vulture
In addition, captive breeding centres have been set up and resulted in 30 chicks fledging to date. However, these chicks cannot be released into the wild as diclofenac is still very present despite all this work.  The main issues this campaign faces is that people in Asia are either unaware of the effects diclofenac can have or they decided not to care.  Therefore, even though as always money is an important factor in recovery of species (such as in supporting captive breeding programmes), this case has highlighted the need for education.  This education needs to encompass a wide range of people in Asia including farmers, children, conservation students etc so that so that the importance of these vultures is understood and these species can begin to recover. Beyond this, these vulture's story should become a worldwide message of equality and the fact that every species deserves to be saved.

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