August 30, 2016

King vulture King vulture

By Michael Macek
Curator of Birds 

Charles Darwin called them “disgusting.” Seen as a living metaphor for greed and rapaciousness, the much maligned vulture goes after dead animals, crackling and cawing while furiously battling over carcasses it can strip clean in minutes. 

But at the Saint Louis Zoo, the vulture is celebrated. The staff in the Saint Louis Zoo’s Bird Department was thrilled this spring when a king vulture chick hatched—the second chick in as many years to be sired by a 45-year-old male. This mighty bird is the second oldest in the care of zoos to father offspring.  And on Sept. 3 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., we are celebrating International Vulture Awareness Day with a range of fun activities and keeper chats.  

We treasure this colorful creature because it plays a vital ecosystem role by cleaning up decaying remains and preventing the spread of disease. Because vultures quickly devour large amounts of flesh and their stomach acids neutralize pathogens, they help limit the spread of deadly bacteria and diseases like anthrax and rabies.  Without them—and we may soon be without them—all animal life, including humans, would suffer.   

Cinereous vulture Cinereous vulture

Vultures are in real trouble in the wild. Today, of 23 species of vultures in the world, 11 are currently threatened.  Vultures suffer from starvation. They hit power lines, experience serious habitat loss and are poisoned by herders in Africa aiming to protect livestock and by poachers afraid that circling vultures will give away their locations. Sometimes, vultures will eat elephant or rhino carcasses that poachers have poisoned after stealing ivory tusks or horns.  But one of the biggest killers of this valuable animal is a medication used on domestic animals. 

Two of three species of vulture in South Asia are near extinction due to the use of diclofenac to reduce inflammation and pain in working domestic animals. When medicated animals die, vultures eat their carcasses, causing the vultures to die quickly from kidney failure. It may be hard to believe that just a few granules of a compound designed to protect livestock can destroy an animal whose gastric juices are acidic enough to neutralize cholera. There is an alternative drug that offers relief to domesticated animals but is not deadly to vultures; however, diclofenac is relatively cheap (compared to its main substitute meloxicam) and so its use continues.

King vulture chick King vulture chick

Compounding the problem is the loss of reproductive animals, which do not reach sexual maturity until age 5 to 7. Vultures produce a chick only once every year or two, and 99 percent of their young die in the first year. All of these factors mean that vulture numbers are projected to decline precipitously in coming years if something isn’t done.

Why should we care? What happened in India is a cautionary tale for all of us. Let’s begin with the fact that India has one of the largest cattle populations in the world even though most Indians don’t eat beef. After millions of vultures fell victim to poisoning, dead cattle started piling up. Then the dog population—released from competing with vultures for scavenged food—grew from 7 million to 29 million in only 11 years. The result: an estimated 38.5 million additional dog bites. Rat populations soared. Deaths from rabies rose by nearly 50,000. The cost of all this to Indian society is estimated to be $34 billion in mortality, treatment expenses and lost wages.  

International Vulture Awareness Day International Vulture Awareness Day

The good news is that after scientists identified diclofenac as the culprit, the drug was banned in the Indian subcontinent. However, a recent survey found that diclofenac is still being sold in more than a third of the pharmacies there.

What can you do? You can take action to help vultures by signing a petition to ban the veterinary drug diclofenac in Europe where the drug is now being used to treat domestic animals. Both vultures and eagles are at risk of death in Europe when they eat the contaminated carcasses of treated cows and pigs.

You can also celebrate the vulture. Come to the Zoo to check out our vulture family—and tell everyone about International Vulture Awareness Day.  Working together, we can save this amazing animal.