Saving Vultures with Carrion "Restaurants"

02/21/2011

You might think that animal oddity in this story is the fact that people would want to save vultures.  After all, with their naked heads, dull colors, angry-looking eyes and penchant for devouring rotting corpse flesh, vultures aren't winning any popularity contests, even amongst birders and wildlife lovers.

If you thought that, however,  you'd be wrong.  The odd thing here is not why people would want to save vultures, it's how they are saving them.

A bit of background: vultures are scavengers.  Rather than hunting and killing live animals for food, vultures evolved to feed on the bodies of animals that have already died.  This adaptation has some distinct advantages.  Everything dies eventually, whether it's by accident, natural disaster, predators or just old age, so by eating carrion, you're guaranteed to have a steady food supply.  Plus, food that's already dead can't fight back and injure you.  And in the big ecological picture, scavengers like vultures serve as sanitation workers, cleaning up "trash" by quickly processing the corpses of dead animals, which is a service from which we all benefit.

This video sheds some light on the important role played by vultures in the wild and why we should save them.

 

Sadly, several vulture species have suffered dramatic declines in Asia and Africa--over 99 percent in the case of the Indian white-rumped vulture.  This decline is due largely to diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory and painkilling drug given to livestock.  Unfortunately, diclofenac is fatal to vultures, who ingest it when they feed on the bodies of dead livestock and then suffer kidney failure.

With human populations growing and domestic livestock replacing wildlife, vultures are increasingly exposed to food contaminated by diclofenac.

Vulture Indian White Backed WIKI
Indian white-rumped vultures have declined by over 99 percent but are benefiting from vulture restaurants.

An innovative solution, however, is helping the birds to recover: vulture restaurants.  The key to saving vultures is to keep them from eating carcasses contaminated by diclofenac.  Even thought diclofenac has been banned in some places, it's still readily available and is still used by rural farmers who don't know it's illegal, or don't care. Vulture restaurants are areas that are stocked with the bodies of dead livestock that has never been given diclofenac and is therefore safe for the vultures to eat.

Currently vulture restaurants are successfully operating in Pakistan, India, Cambodia, Nepal and South Africa.  While they don't completely solve the problem of poisoning of vultures, these odd restaurants have given the birds a helping hand and slowed their potential extinction.

This video shows the vultures dining at a restaurant in Cambodia.

Photo of Indian white-rumped vulture from Wikimedia Commons. Originally published in the article  Switching Drugs for Livestock May Help Save Critically Endangered Asian Vultures. Gross L, PLoS Biology Vol. 4/3/2006, e61


David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. His goal is to inspire others to appreciate the wonders of nature. Meet David >
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