Pity the plight of that under-loved species, the vulture. Their gruesome feeding habits are an essential part of other cultures, says Brian Emsley.
Vultures don’t get a good press.
It is easy to find them offensive because they look pretty awful and appear to relish dead things. Yet one cannot help feeling pity that 99.99 per cent of the Oriental white-backed breed has died and the 0.01 percent remaining are rapidly declining.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), a much-respected organisation, has kept me in touch with the issue over the past five years or so, keen to highlight the decline. It appears to have been caused by a drug given to arthritis-threatened cows in India to prolong their working lives, which when dead are easy pickings for the vultures.
The practices of Parsis are affected by the decline because they place their dead on high platforms for vultures to peck at, so releasing their spirits. Somebody once told me that it is far better to be presented to the birds and the elements when dead than being stuck six feet under for the worms in darkness.
However, I have every intention of living at least 300 years, like the chap in the timeless Frank Capra 1936 movie Lost Horizon, which I watched this week decades after first seeing it on the box.
As the head honcho of Shangri-La, a warm bright, fertile, violence-free utopia, hidden by a ring of Himalayan mountains, a Belgian priest, born in the 18th century, is finally shuffling off his tercentennial mortal coil and seeks a successor by hijacking an aeroplane carrying westerners amongst whom a likely spiritual successor may lie.
Interestingly, one can view the film now as almost racist. The management of the valley, which is a sort of Centre Parcs designed by Corbusier, is Western, while the heavy work is performed smilingly by oriental men and women. All they have in common is the wearing of wide furry hats, which you might think unnecessary given the valley's sunny micro-climate.
One of the aeroplane’s passengers, a tough young lady with a terminal illness and a lot of make-up, sheds both, worked upon by in the moral and weather in which she is now immersed.
I didn’t catch the film’s end but I suspect she stays on and lives hundreds of years. Certainly the English diplomat and soldier who was kidnap target leaves but then fights his way back.
How they disposed of Shangri-La’s ancient corpses I do not know; I imagine it was near-magical and very clean. No way would they have stuck their departed on high platforms for intestines to be dragged across the white-washed roofs and verdant vales.
And another thing – Shangri La folk import some external goods, brought in through a tiny gap in the savage snow-caked mountain wall, using plentiful gold that lies around everywhere. How come nobody decides to take a shot at invading the haven for gold?
Today I suppose, being based upon Tibet, foreigners would be raking through Shangri-La for lithium for their mobile phones. But that is a vulture of another sort, best not spoken about here.
But if you want to know more about the vulture crisis here is a note to the RSC media office from a former RSC colleague now working for the RSPB.
RSPB letter to RSC
I promised to keep you up to date with this project, and thought you might like to know that we have made some real progress this year to save the vultures from extinction.
I am extremely pleased to report that 10 vulture chicks have fledged in our centres this year. Everyone associated with the project has been hugely encouraged by this success so far. We are determined to build on this, to ensure a future for these species.
‘Globally extinct within 10 years’: that has been the most pessimistic prediction for three species of vulture that have disappeared from huge areas of southern Asia. But we now have genuine long-term hope for these three critically endangered species. Our ultimate aspiration is to return birds to the wild.
As recently as the late 1980s, vultures were abundant in Asia, and were an integral and familiar part of life throughout the continent. In the space of little more than a decade, three species have declined to the brink of extinction. There has been a decline of 99.9% in the population of Oriental white-backed vulture, with 40% per annum ongoing declines of the tiny fraction of the population that is left. Long-billed and slender-billed vultures are also declining dramatically, with slender-billed now the rarest of the three. Their decline has been the fastest of any large animals ever recorded, making this one of the most pressing extinction threats facing conservation today.
As a result, these species are no longer present in many areas to carry out their important function in the cycle of life and death, and major issues are resulting from this. The ecological and social consequences of losing these species are stark. Vultures are vital for human health, cleaning the environment of rotting carcasses in particular. As vultures have been decreasing, a 35% increase in feral dogs was recorded in 2003, posing further health and safety threats. Rabies is a particular resultant concern, with over 10,000 human cases recorded in India per year. The costs of burning or burying carcasses are not calculated but the domestic impacts are certainly most hard-felt by the poorest people in Indian society.
Scientific research carried out by a number of organisations, including the RSPB and Bombay Natural History Society (our partners in India) established the cause of the declines. The problem is a veterinary drug called diclofenac, which had become commonly used in the treatment of animals from the early 1990s, although not originally intended for non-human use. We have also now shown that ketoprofen is lethal to the birds too.
An alternative drug, meloxicam, has been identified and safety-tested, and a manufacturing ban of the veterinary formulation of diclofenac has been notified by the Drug Controller General of India. This very significant step has come relatively quickly and has been mirrored in both Nepal and Pakistan. This is not, however, in itself enough to avert the total extinction of these species. There are challenges, including enforcement of the manufacturing ban, and that human diclofenac is reaching the veterinary market. We are working flat out to ensure that both these issues are addressed by the authorities, with the utmost urgency.
I hope this update is of interest.