Dead and Dying | Old World Vultures 101

Vultures have a bit of a poor reputation. They’re often thought of as little more than dirty scavengers with ‘faces only a mother could love‘, typically photographed with their heads stuck inside a corpse or fighting over dead or dying animals. The reality, though, is more nuanced: whilst perhaps not the world’s most beautiful, vultures are incredibly well-adapted birds that play hugely important roles in many ecosystems, helping to reduce the spread of disease and bacteria by cleaning up carrion (vultures have very strong stomach acid, which allows them to feed on carcasses infected with anthrax and rabies unlike many other scavengers).

Two separate groups of vultures exist – the so-called ‘New World’ condors and turkey vultures and the ‘Old World’ species of Africa and Asia. While they look fairly similar, they are actually unrelated to each other (the result of convergent evolution, adaptations to occupying similar niches in different parts of the world), and in this post we’ll be focussing on the Old World birds.

Until relatively recently Old World vultures were widespread and largely under no serious conservation threat. Many were a highly visible and integral part of the landscape, as at home in urban areas as savannas and mountains. However, these vultures have been disappearing incredibly fast. The Oriental White-backed Vulture (Gyps bengalensis) of India and southeast Asia, for example, was so abundant up until the 1980s that it was considered one of the most common large birds of prey in the world. Once numbering several million individuals, just a few decades later it was listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered after an almost incomprehensible 99.9% decline. Less than 15,000 now exist.

Of the species of Asian vulture, four are now Critically Endangered (ie facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild). Four of Africa’s eleven species are also Critically Endangered. In fact, just two “Old World” Vulture species remain off the Endangered list: as well as the eight classified as Critically Endangered, three are Endangered (very likely to become extinct in the near future), and three Near Threatened (may be considered threatened with extinction in the near future).

So what has been happening to bring these birds to the brink of extinction?

The major factors are thought to be as follows:

  1. Unintentional poisoning by non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) used to treat cattle.
  2. Feeding on poisoned baits, often targeting other animals.
  3. Electrocution on or collision with power lines.
  4. Lack of food.
  5. Habitat degradation or outright loss.
  6. Deliberate persecution for bushmeat or collection of vulture parts used in ‘traditional’ medicines.

Asian vultures:

Asian vultures were once unavoidable. Massive evening roosts were common in cities like New Delhi. Those have now gone. Scientists discovered the cause was the common anti-inflammatory diclofenac, given to the region’s vast numbers of domesticated buffalo and cattle to treat lameness and pain. While many people don’t eat meat, India is one of the largest milk producers on Earth, and dead animals were routinely dumped to be ‘disposed of’ for free by vultures. Introduced to India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh in the 1980s Diclofenac caused rapid renal failure and visceral gout in vultures after they ingested it through scavenging at ‘cattle dumps’ and in the countryside. Death could occur in as few as thirty days. Diclofenac was banned by governments across Asia in 2006 (though it’s still available in small quantities, and, in remote areas especially, is still being given to cattle), but by then the populations of several species had plummetted.

A vicious circle was also set in place. In the absence of vultures, cattle offal and waste was eaten by feral dogs instead. Their numbers increased rapidly. One report stated that before the collapse in vulture numbers there were 1,500-2,000 vultures and 60 dogs at one carcass dump in Rajasthan: afterwards there were no vultures and 1,200 dogs. As the numbers of dogs rose, so did the number of people contracting rabies from dog bites. While some animal welfare organisations remain convinced that more people are bitten by pet dogs than strays, by 2003 more people were dying of rabies in India than anywhere else in the world.

In the absence of vultures and the increase in feral dogs, slaughter and disposal habits have (permanently?) changed. Cattle carcasses are largely no longer left out for carrion feeders but buried instead – in some cases, depriving the few remaining vultures of food. The use of poisoned baits to control dogs (which is illegal in India) has also been recorded.

Determined efforts are underway to re-build populations of Asia’s ‘lost’ vultures. Captive breeding is underway with plans for re-introductions. Safe feeding areas and ‘vulture restaurants’ (which increasingly bring tourism revenue) have been set up in guaranteed ‘diclofenac-free’ areas, and remaining nesting areas protected.

While extinction remains a possibility, it is becoming less likely. It seems improbable though that vultures will ever be seen across Asia in the numbers they were once found in. Modern agricultural practices are sweeping through Asia (as well as new disposal methods, new dairy cattle breeds are far more efficient meaning villagers are keeping far fewer cows than before); vultures are very slow to breed,maturing over several years and producing few young; habitat loss is ongoing; and ‘training’ captive-bred vultures to live in the wild takes time and money.

African vultures:

No nature documentary on Africa would be complete without footage of vultures squabbling over the carcass of a wildebeest or impala. However, in the past 30 years some African species have declined by 80%. In 2015 BirdLife warned that “Africa’s vultures are sliding towards extinction“. Four of Africa’s seven vulture species are considered to be Critically Endangered.

Vulture decline in Africa is not attributable to Diclofenac though. The situation across the continent is less clear-cut, with peripheral factors including habitat loss, ingestion of lead ammunition, collisions with power lines, and accidental drownings in farm water reservoirs. But the drop appears to have three main causes: the indiscriminate (and accidental) poisoning of vultures to protect livestock; the deliberate poisoning of vultures by poachers; and the rising use of vulture body parts in traditional medicine.

In the first case, vultures are being discovered in mass poisoning events as a by-product of ranchers and pastoralists deliberately laying out poisoned carcasses or baits to eradicate livestock predators (like lions and cheetahs, and in some areas feral dogs), which also attract vultures.

An emerging and perhaps more significant threat to African vultures appears to come from targeted poisoning by poachers. Vultures are ‘sentinel species’, attracting each other as they circle over kills, and poachers are deliberately targeting the birds to avoid them giving away the presence of illegally poached animals such as rhinos or elephants. Between July 2011 and 2014, at least ten poisoning incidents were discovered, which resulted in the deaths of at least 1,500 vultures across six southern African countries.

This appears to be just the tip of a very large iceberg though. In 2019, two Tawny Eagles and 537 vultures (comprising five different species) died in northern Botswana after scavenging a poisoned elephant carcass. According to a government statement, the dead included 468 White-backed Vultures, 28 Hooded Vultures, 17 White-headed Vultures, 14 Lappet-faced Vultures, and 10 Cape Vultures – all Endangered or Critically Endangered species. The poisoning took place during the nesting season, meaning many dependent young would have also starved.

Another major issue is that vultures are being eaten as bushmeat (as forests are emptied of mammals, poachers are turning to large birds) or their body parts used in ‘belief-based’ traditional medicine.

New Scientist reported in 2015 that researchers visited hundreds of bushmeat stalls at 67 markets in 12 countries across West and Central Africa, and found 52 species of vultures and other raptors for sale. Another recent scientific paper looking at sales of vulture parts found that 29% of the vulture deaths recorded across Africa could be attributed to the traditional medicine trade. Body parts of vultures are used for a number of purposes, none of which seem scientifically (or remotely) plausible. For instance, according to the Endangered WildLife Trust the brains of vultures are dried, rolled and smoked as joints (or simply burnt and the fumes inhaled) to ‘improve’ users odds when they gamble on the lottery or place bets on sport (because vultures appear soaring over dead animals so quickly, many people believe the birds are clairvoyant). Sprinkling minced body parts around the house or burying vulture heads beneath doorways is said to drive away evil spirits, Other reported uses of vultures include consuming their eyes to improve eyesight, their beaks for protection, or their feet to heal fractured bones or make a person run faster.

Tackling such beliefs is incredibly difficult. Despite media campaigns and education programmes little headway has been made in convincing Asian consumers that, for example, pangolin scales and rhino horns are simply made of keratin and have the same medicinal value as fingernails. Alternative suggestions include perhaps allowing a sustainable ‘harvest’ to fulfil demand instead. How that could be monitored or enforced in remote communities or in areas where poaching is rife isn’t explained convincingly. With so many vultures being taken across such a huge area, the reality may well be that the trade will only stop there are no more vultures left.

When they’re gone, they’re gone

Whether we ‘like’ vultures or not hardly matters. Besides their own intrinsic value, they are an irreplaceable and important part of the environment. Nature’s clean-up crews, their absence means bodies of animals are left to rot, potentially affecting groundwater or waterholes, or an increase in feral dogs, rats, and other less welcome species. While time does appear to be running out for some vultures, for others there is indeed good reason for hope. They are of course a high priority concern for many conservation organisations. A few are listed below, though an online search will turn up many more examples.