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Notes From a Culture Vulture: in Praise of the Vulture

Image of white-rumped vultures by Dr Jessica Bodgener

Guest blog by Laurelie Walter, who recently accompanied Executive Director, Olivia, to Nepal.

Isn’t it time we re-evaluated the meaning of the word vulture?  Think about it: something goes wrong in life, you run out of money and a fire sale is necessary. Then “the vultures circle” or “the vultures descend”.  They are predators, rapacious, evil even and we deeply disapprove.  And the epithet “culture vulture” (I admit to being one) is far from high praise, quite the opposite, sneering even. This is a scandalous, vulture cancelling culture and we need to reassess this now!

OK, they are not the prettiest of birds. I deplore their scrawny necks. BUT we are an inclusive society so think again about what vultures actually do and the part they play in the eco system.  In Asia where I have just visited I have had an epiphany about the role of vultures and I have learned to love them.  Forty years ago on an earlier visit, I remember seeing large numbers of them swirling around the skies in India and Nepal.  This last time I saw just two, majestic, spreading their huge wings like eagles (I have to admit I can’t tell the difference at a distance) as they are soar on the thermals. 

But why only two?  The reality is that the vulture population has declined hugely in numbers since the 90’s.  Think losing 5,000 a day for 15 years.  The reason?  Widespread use of the drug diclofenac. It’s like ibuprofen or aspirin and very effective for animal welfare, and in particular cows on whose carcasses vultures feed, doing a very neat job of cleaning up the corpse. Recycling it, if you like. Historically villagers left the carcass of their deceased animal in the field for the vultures to do their work, quickly and cleanly. Unfortunately the diclofenac remained in the carcass and was found to be complete poison to the vulture. While innocently enjoying his feast and doing his vital work, the Grim Reaper hovered above with a death sentence. Shortly after his feast, he would drop from the sky and this happened to vultures in their thousands and thousands, depleting their numbers by 99.9%over 10 years. 

Much work was done in a co-operative way amongst many nations to establish the cause of this sudden decline, to halt it and re-build the vulture population by captive breeding and release into the wild. Happily, vultures take to this because rather endearingly and unusually for the wild, the experienced wild vultures take the captive bred ones under their wing and show them the ropes out in the big wild world. You just can’t help loving them for that!  

And this is where Wildlife Vets International is stepping in to assist this programme which in Jetayu, Nepal at any rate is called The Vulture Restaurant!  WVI intend to help by training vets to undertake an annual programme of health checks and help rehabilitate those that are found weak and sick.   

“The next WVI fundraising campaign will be aimed at developing and supporting an in-country network of vets with good vulture knowledge/experience, underpinned by international knowledge if needed” saysOlivia Walter, Executive Director of WVI. “In my ideal scenario, WVI would support these vets to pass their knowledge onto vets in other range states, working with both captive and free-living vultures.”  

They need people to champion vultures and fund the programme so think about it!

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Author and self-confessed culture vulture Laurelie Walter in Nepal, March 2023

Find out more about the One Health concept, the catastrophic demise in vulture numbers in South Asia, why vultures are so misunderstood and why they are the best animals for the job - because nobody does it better - the conservation story so far and WVI's role in the future of vulture conservation.

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