Vultures also called buzzards or condors are one of the most majestic yet misunderstood birds. Today 14 out of 23 species of Vultures found all over the world, are either threatened or endangered. Still, only the Bearded Vulture is protected by law in India.
This is a cause for alarm as vulture breeding is an extremely slow process — as they lay only one egg every year. Vultures start breeding only when they are 5 -6 years old and mate for life.
Vultures are nature’s doctors or garbage collectors, and help to keep the environment clean by removing the bacteria-ridden carcasses but still are at the mercy of human beings due to– poisoning illegal hunting, and unexpected loss of habitat.
Vultures are the ‘nature’s clean-up crew’. They do the dirty work by eating the dead animals — thus helping keep the environment clean and minimize the spread of disease. But still — they have a bad reputation and are perceived as lowly scavengers. Nobody loves or cares for them.
For many of us, vultures are scary birds of prey, and children are specifically warned to keep away from them.
The general perception about vultures is that they are large birds that eat dead animals and even human beings. The Cambridge dictionary equates this with a person or organization that is eager to win an advantage from other people’s difficulties or problems.
Vultures are known to be voracious eaters that can finish off the mortal remains – skin, flesh, and bones of a small animal in less than half an hour and ensure that no part of the body is wasted. A flock of vultures can clean carcasses of dead bullocks within 30 to 40 minutes.
Vultures have good eyesight and sense of smell which helps them spot a dead animal from miles away in the sky at an altitude of 15,000 ft or more. After spotting a carcass an individual Vulture may circle above it in the sky to draw the attention of other vultures – also inviting them to join in the feast. They usually wait patiently and do not compete with each other for food. It is a different story though, that the fight invariably starts at the dinner table when it comes to deciding who gets to eat the tastiest, tender, and juicy part of the booty.
Vultures use their feet to pull out and eat the flesh with their beaks. Vultures have extremely hard and sharp beaks and talons. Vultures break open the bones of dead animals by lifting them in the air and dropping them onto rocks to feed on the bone marrow. Some species of Vultures drop rocks to break ostrich eggs to eat the soft portion inside them. Vultures stick their head deep into the body cavity of dead animals to pick and feed on the remains.
After a good meal, the Vultures invariably bask in the sun to neutralize any bacteria-ridden bits of food sticking to their torso.
Vultures are known to have exceptionally corrosive acid in their stomach which helps them digest putrid carcasses infected with botulinum toxin and other harmful bacteria that can prove lethal for other scavengers.
Vultures are considered sacred in Tibet and have an important role to play in a popular Tibetan festival called Sky Burial which focuses on the belief in reincarnation and after life after death.
In the Hindu epic Ramayana, there is a mention of Jatayu the “King of Vultures” who tried to stop Ravan from abducting goddess Sita. Jatayu fought valiantly till the end but lost. Ravan clipped his wings and made him fall down to earth. Later, while searching for Sita, Ram and Lakshman happened to meet the badly injured Jatayu, who informed them how Ravan abducted Sita before dying in front of them. Rama performed his funeral.
According to the legend, after his wings were clipped by Ravan, Jatayu’s body fell down to earth at Chadayamangalam in the Kollam district of Kerala. To celebrate Jatayu’s valor and sacrifice- a 200 ft wide statue has been erected at the Jatayu Nature Park in Chadayamangalam, which is the world’s largest bird sculpture.
Likewise Hindu epic Rigveda and Yajurveda – describe Garuda as a powerful creature and the younger brother of Arun the charioteer of the sun god who could stop the spinning of heaven, earth, and hell by flapping his wings. It is said that Lord Vishnu was so impressed by Garuda’s valor and wisdom that he selected him to be his personal vahana (vehicle). The text Garuda Purana is named after him.
In India today Garuda is the name of a Special Forces unit of the Indian Air Force, capable of operating deep behind enemy lines as well as the emblem of the Indian Army’s Brigade of the Guards. This apart Garuda is the national emblem of Thailand, and Indonesia and commands respect in a number of other countries.
In the last decade or so the population of Vultures has declined dramatically all over the world. India too has been experiencing a massive decline in the population of vultures and is estimated to have lost over 100,000 birds. In the Delhi-Agra-Bharatpur triangle — an area of more than 10,000 km, the vulture population has plummeted from 20,000 birds in 1990 to about 150 in 1999. The birds have almost disappeared from Nepal and Bangladesh.
This is so because of tribes like the ‘Bandas’ (Bandolu tribe) in Andhra Pradesh as well as the Nagas, Mishis, and Mizo tribes in Northeast India which eat vulture eggs and meat. Vultures are also in big demand as exhibits in zoos, museums, and in circus companies.
Vulture meat is prescribed by traditional healers for treating ailments, like headaches. Vulture’s body parts are supposed to provide success in business and enhance intelligence in school children. Vultures are also an important ingredient in traditional medicine for preparing therapeutic remedies to cure ailments like rheumatism, headache, bedwetting, and diabetes. There is a big demand for vulture carcasses which is a lucrative secret and illegal trade in many parts of the world. The head, heart, brain, feet, blood, intestines, claw, beak, bones, and feathers are in particular used for traditional medicinal purposes. The vulture head and feathers in particular are believed to ward off evil spirits and protect against witchcraft.
In many cultures, Vulture parts are used to appease ancestors and chase away bad spirits. Vulture brain and heart are said to have psychic properties which can help to win a lottery. Powdered vulture’s heart, blood, and brains are used to predict the future while Libaso – a paste made of powdered vulture parts is used to call upon the ancestors, chase bad spirits, or increase intelligence.
The declining number of vultures is posing a big problem for the Zoroastrian community who are finding it difficult to perform the last rites of the dead as vultures were not available to accept their last religious offering. The Tower of Silence in Mumbai is almost deserted because of the absence of vultures in the past few years.
According to experts poisoning both intentional and accidental is a major factor in the death and mortality of vultures, kites, crows, and birds feeding on carcasses in India. The argument in favor of poisoning is that it is a safe, silent, and secretive method without attracting attention. The felt or skin of animals also does not bear bullet marks and thus fetches a better price in the market. On a number of occasions, poachers are reported to have used poisons to purposefully target vultures so that they do not attract attention by hovering above the carcass of illegally hunted animals.
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Cow slaughter is banned in India so hide collectors feed foods laden with medicines like diclofenac, or zinc phosphide to poison the livestock and take away the hide and bones of the dead animal. Depending upon the quality and quantity of poison used a large number of vultures also get killed after eating the poisoned carcass. Lead poisoning due to gunshots used by poachers to kill large animals also kills vultures who feed on them.
This is a serious problem as each dead cow fed with diclofenac can contaminate as many as 10-12 vultures. Studies estimate that more than 90 percent of the vultures in India like the white-rumped vulture which feeds on dead cows have died due to this drug. India has since banned diclofenac, but it is still legal in many countries like Spain where it is still endangering the vultures.
Shooting and poisoning of vultures to avoid near airfields to prevent air crashes due to collisions was another reason behind the decline of the vulture population. Many vulture deaths were reported during kite flying festivals in different parts of India.
Loss of nesting habitat due to the large-scale cutting of trees, cyclones, earthquakes, and tsunamis also created havoc for the vulture population.
The rapid decline and extinction of the vulture population were first recorded at the Keoladeo National Park, in Rajasthan during 1980-1990.
Initially, it was believed that the drastic decline in the Vulture population was because of non –availability of food or an unknown viral epidemic disease. However, this was clearly not the case. Field investigations revealed that more than 85% of the vultures died due to renal failure. Researchers found that 72% of the vultures had detectable traces of diclofenac – a cheap and widely available drug in their tissues. Diclofenac was considered to be very effective and extensively used as a medicine for cattle. Gujarat was the first Indian state to stop the use of diclofenac. But by now the damage has already been done.
Vultures were found in plenty almost two decades ago. However, the population of vultures started declining in the ’80s and ’90s. Today the stage has come where vultures are hardly seen even at places where they were seen in large numbers.
Today Vultures are critically endangered and at “very high risk” of extinction in many parts of the world. The only option is to roll out effective conservation measures to prevent Vultures from becoming extinct in the near future, experts say.