Vulture Culture

The demise of the vulture in India highlighted their important role in the natural world. PART 1 of 2

by J. Morton Galetto, CU Maurice River

For years I have been delivering presentations on Vulture Culture, all over the state. It’s proved to be interesting and a great deal of fun. Vultures exist worldwide and they’re deeply ingrained in many societies. The service that they provide to the environment and to humans is indisputable. They are one of nature’s cleanup crews. In fact, the demise of the vulture in India was one of the greatest conservation travesties of all time and highlighted their important role in the natural world.

Their Latin name, Catharses aura, can be loosely translated to mean “purifying breeze.” As a cleanup crew they help protect us from the carcinogens that are present in decaying matter. Like other carrion-eating birds, they have a very sophisticated immune system that enables them to eat rotting meat without getting sick. Strong stomach acids are in part responsible for killing bacteria. They are even immune to the bacterium spores of anthrax, and scientists have studied them looking for solutions to botulism.

In our southern New Jersey regions, we have two species of vultures—the turkey vulture and, in the past 20 to 30 years, the black vulture from more southern states has also taken up residence.

Some Middle Eastern and Asian cultures actually employ vultures in the disposal of human bodies. In Tibet this practice is called sky burials, and although it may seem foreign or disgusting to a Westerner, the idea of a body being devoured and carried to the heavens is quite spiritual. Some Eastern societies would look on our burial of Aunt Erma as very odd indeed. We pump her full of chemicals and keep her refrigerated so the relatives can come from far and wide to view her body and say, “Doesn’t she look lovely, I always liked that dress.” My purpose is not to be irreverent but rather to get you to think outside the box—yes, pun intended.

In the Middle East and India, some sects like the Zoroastrians use Dakhmas, or Towers of Silence. They place their dead atop platforms that look like a short silo perched on a hilltop for the vultures to do their cleansing work.

For us, vultures are usually seen as a harbinger of death. How many of you can remember that in westerns, before the shootouts, we would see them circle the O.K. Corral. This is misleading because they do not kill their prey but rather eat carrion. When you see them circling it would more likely mean that something is already dead.

Let’s look at the effects that losing vultures had in India, where cows are revered. There are worldwide sales of beef deriving from India but most Indians are vegetarians. Of the estimated 500 million head of cattle there, only 4 percent are destined for consumption by humans. Cattle are used for many more products and purposes alive than dead. Milk production, pulling of carts, hulling grains, and dung are important. We could do an entire article on how Indians use cow pies. Commodities like fertilizer, mortar, and concrete are all dung-based. I walked on a concrete floor at an Indian farmhouse that was highly polished and quite nice. I also read an article explaining that former rural dwellers will even pay for a cow pie to be sent into the city.

When a cow dies in New Delhi it is taken to a rural disposal area. As many as 15,000 vultures could once be observed cleaning up the carcass. To shed light on how quickly this can happen, we fielded a dead deer to attract eagles and vultures for a children’s program. In about 24 hours all the meat was GONE. After two days I presume the coyotes were responsible for carting off the bones as well!

Back to the dead cow disposal site. At some point, cattle with inflammation disorders were routinely given a drug called Diclofenac. This was stored in the tissues of the animal such that vultures were accidentally poisoned after consuming the meat from a treated carcass. Even one exposure to Diclofenac could kill a vulture. Once all the vultures were gone, thousands of wild dogs carried disease from the carcasses and rabies is now also a problem; 500,000 people are treated for it each year. In India a person is bitten every two seconds and one dies every 30 minutes.

Diclofenac was developed by Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis) in 1973. It took scientists a long time to recognize its effect on non-target animals, and when they did it was too late. By 1999 a massive decline of three species of vulture had taken place in India, Nepal, and Pakistan. In 2006, the drug was banned in India. Like most chemical bans it took a long time to take effect, and other countries like Spain continued to authorize the use of the drug where 80 percent of European vultures live. There are recovery efforts being undertaken by Indian wildlife officials but because of the vulture’s characteristics it is a difficult species to raise in captivity, and it is costly.

Furthermore, in Africa, poachers of big game are poisoning vultures because these birds’ presence discloses their evil deeds. But when animals stampede they often drown near riverbeds, and without these cleanup crews, water supplies are exposed to toxins.

Next week we will get into some more particulars about our local vultures. For now, I hope you are gaining some insight into how they serve us and the natural world.

Nature Around Us