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Eco-Justice Notes
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The Case of the Vanishing Vultures
distributed 2/12/10 - ©2010

"That nature is a community is the scientific discovery of the twentieth century. That earth, human society included, is also a community has not yet registered with us. At least how to sustain it as a community has not." -- Larry Rasmussen

People who pay attention to the news have countless opportunities to see how humans are part and parcel of the Earth community. Human impacts on the biosphere range from the global to the local, and human dependence on the natural world -- whether thriving or diminished -- should be self-evident. But that knowledge is often confined to our heads, and does not make it into our hearts and souls. It can be so complex that it is difficult to grasp.

A clear-cut, dramatic example that shows how thoroughly we are entwined in the web of life can nurture an eco-justice worldview. I offer one such story today. I'll call it The Case of the Vanishing Vultures.

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Our story is set in India, Nepal and Pakistan. (I'll simplify, from now on, and just refer to India.) In that part of the world, vultures have been plentiful and useful for thousands of years. Like their carrion-eating kin around the planet, the big birds serve as nature's garbage service. Dead things become dinner, instead of lying around for a drawn-out process of decay that would be messy, smelly and prone to spreading disease. Vultures maintain public health in an efficient way, at no charge to local communities. (They are one example of what environmental economists call "ecosystem services" -- the things that nature does for free that would be very expensive if we had to do it for ourselves.)

The vultures are especially important in India. The predominantly Hindu population shies away from killing animals and eating meat. Cows, camels, and such are raised for milk and to do work on farms, but they are allowed to die of natural causes. So, there are many more bodies of large animals than would be found in most other parts of the world. (In an illustration of the fine line between ecology and economics, when people eat the bodies of dead farm animals, it is called "agriculture" and involves the exchange of lots of money.) And it is not just livestock that is involved. Followers of the Parsi religion feed human bodies to the vultures, so that the bodies are not defiled by earth or fire.

This abundance of vulture food led to an abundance of vultures. They were a common sight in trees and on buildings all over the sub-continent, and had become a hazard to aviation. A big bird can cause big damage to an airplane.

That's the way it has been, until very recently. In the late 1990s, a sudden decline in the vulture population was noticed. There was no shortage of food -- indeed, the change became evident when deceased critters started to linger longer by the roadside. In tropical heat, lingering livestock bodies will catch your attention after a day or so! The dearth of carrion-eaters was showing up all over the region.

When biologists examined a few of the vulture carcasses (which, I understand, are not easy or pleasant to collect), they found dramatic evidence of kidney failure, which was quickly lethal to the birds. What was very odd, though, is that there was no evidence of any of the diseases that would ordinarily cause such a condition. Why were the vultures vanishing?

The clever researcher who solved the mystery -- after lots of dead ends -- asked if there was anything new and different about the bodies being eaten by the vultures. A change had occurred because Hindu farmers were taking better care of their animals. They were giving them drugs, and one of those drugs was the culprit.

Pharmaceutical companies in the US have developed (and patented) a product with the alluring name of diclofenac. It is an anti-inflammatory medicine used to treat arthritis and other painful conditions. It has been approved for veterinary use, as well as on humans. At the time, India was not enforcing international patents. Lots of creative laboratories in India manufactured the drug, and they were able to sell it really cheap, since they had almost no development costs. Farmers could afford to buy the drug and treat their ailing livestock.

What nobody expected -- and certainly nobody had tested -- is that the residue of diclofenac found in the body of a previously sick cow would be fatal to vultures. But it is. And it only takes a very few drug-laced bodies to do in lots of vultures. In a little over a decade, 99 percent of the vultures are gone.

"Just 15 years ago Indian Gyps vultures were thought to be the most numerous large raptors on the planet," according to biologist Richard Cuthbert. "In a single decade they've undergone the most rapid population collapse of any animal in recorded history."

The sudden extinction of one of God's distinctive creatures emptied a very large and important ecological niche. In a city, if all the sanitation workers died or quit, help wanted signs would be posted everywhere. So, too, in India, nature put up notices, "Wanted: carrion eaters." The eager applicants have included lots of dogs, and growing numbers of rats. These mammals are not as well-qualified for the job as the vanished vultures, though. They spread rabies and plague, and are susceptible to some of the same diseases that kill livestock, such as anthrax. They're also nowhere near as efficient in providing prompt and thorough service, so carcasses accumulate. Farms and towns are having to burn or bury livestock bodies, at considerable cost, and demanding substantial amounts of valuable fuel or land to do what the vultures did for free.

Changes are underway to deal with this crisis of public and ecological health. The deadly drug is far less available to farmers, and an urgent program of captive breeding and controlled feeding is keeping the few remaining vultures from going extinct. They're slow breeders, though, so it will be a very, very long time -- if ever -- before vultures are once again common in India.

Want to learn more? Smithsonian Magazine did an excellent article three years ago that was my first introduction to the crisis. The January, 2010, OnEarth newsletter of the NRDC provides updated information.

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There are lessons here about the ecosystem services provided by vultures, and the essential ecological niche that they filled. More broadly, the veterinary use of a single medicine in India shows us the unintended consequences that connect US drug companies, Indian farmers, sudden extinction, surging populations of rat and dogs, and a culture that has to re-think how to dispose of bodies.

The straightforward story of diclofenac and vultures teaches us what Larry Rasmussen says we need to know: "That earth, human society included, is also a community."

May we learn that message in our heads and our hearts, so that we might live more gracefully as members of the Earth community.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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