Beirut- Vultures have a bad image – rather an ugly bird, they have neither the nobility of the eagle nor the elegance of the albatross.
With their gazes fixed firmly on the ground, vultures circle over the bodies of dying animals, waiting for them to breathe their last so they can pounce.
Several negative sayings have sprung from their habits – people talk about “the vultures gathering”, for example, when relatives rush to the side of a dying and wealthy relative.
They “fell on it like vultures”, is another expression used to illustrate people’s greed.
But the word may soon lose its negative connotation, because in large parts of the world the numbers of this bird have fallen so dramatically they are in danger of extinction.
In Africa and Asia, home to the so-called Old World vultures, their numbers have shrunk by 95 per cent over the past few decades, a conference in Toledo, Spain aimed at working out a plan to save them, was told recently.
Of the 23 vulture species 16 are threatened worldwide.
Four Asian species and four African species are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list of critically endangered species.
They include the hooded vulture, the white-backed vulture, Indian vulture, and Rueppell’s vulture.
“Drastic measures are needed to deal with the emergency situation that most of the vultures in Asia and Europe are facing,” said Ivan Ramirez, head of conservation at Birdlife Europe and Central Asia.
“Not only are they wonderful species that we must preserve, but also key ecosystem service providers,” he said.
Just why are vultures so important? Nick Williams, a vulture expert at the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, says they are “purpose-built for cleaning up animal carcasses”.
“Without them, other animals may fill their role or carcasses will go uneaten,” he continued. This could destabilize ecosystems and potentially contribute to the spread of disease among animals as well as humans, he says.
“Vultures are a characteristic, distinctive and spectacular component of the biodiversity of the environments they inhabit,” he said.
The drop in their numbers is due to various factors.
One of the most important is their being – often unintentionally – poisoned.
Vultures in Africa for example eat the carcasses of dogs, jackals and hyenas that have been poisoned by farmers because of the dangers they present to their animals.
Dozens of vultures of all different types might all eat the same one animal, themselves ingest the poison, and die.
Ivory poachers also deliberately poison the vultures in a bid to prevent park rangers from discovering the dead carcasses of elephants and rhinos.
The circling of the vultures above would alert the rangers to their presence and so they often poison the carcasses in order to kill as many vultures as possible.
Demand for vulture body parts in traditional medicine in parts of Asia and Africa has also contributed to their shrinking numbers. The magnitude of it is horrifying, a conservation NGO, writes on its website, quoting Mark Anderson, director of Birdlife South Africa.
“Since the 2010 football World Cup, people have been eating vultures’ brains in order to be able to predict match results and generate betting money,” said Anderson.
The new action plan to save the vultures, a final version of which is set to be adopted in Manila in October, proposes 100 measures to be implemented over the next 12 years.
It includes strengthening laws and improved monitoring of adherence to them.
Even in Europe the future of vultures is far from secure.
In Spain and Italy, where 80 per cent of the continent’s vultures live, the use of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac to treat cattle and pigs has been allowed for several years.
However it is fatal to the vultures that eat their carcasses.
The drug’s use in India in the mid-1990s led to the sudden demise of 99 per cent of the vulture population.
“The meeting has emphasized the folly of some governments, such as Spain and Italy, by authorizingthe veterinary use of diclofenac,” warned Juan Carlos Atienza, director of conservation at SEO/BirdLife, after the Toledo meeting.
“Spain is the last place on the planet with high densities of vultures and is no longer a safe country for them,” he continued.
“The Spanish government should ban the veterinary use of this drug as soon as possible, especially when there are other alternatives safe for birds.”
The drug is already banned in Germany, where bearded vultures can still be found in the southern Allgaeu region.
However, griffon vultures, which sometimes cross over from Italy, face problems because any livestock carcasses tend to be quickly disposed of by farmers.
That leaves the vultures circling hungrily over the mountains searching for carrion.