Did you know our feathery friends could be our allies in mitigating the spread of disease that can otherwise infect other animals, including livestock and humans? An Instagram post by Arulagam Foundation (@Arulagam), an NGO that works with vulture conservation in the Nilgiris Biosphere has come up with a short video that explains why vultures are protectors of nature.
“Human race has encountered many viruses like COVID-19,” says S Bharathidasan, founder of Arulagam, adding, “As shown in the video, our rich biodiversity plays a huge role in keeping the germs at check. Of the many organisms, vultures, as carcass feeders, play a significant role. Though there is no direct relationship between vultures and COVID-19, it’s high time we realised their importance and protected them. The scavenger birds hold the key for a natural mechanism of infection control.”
Often reviled for their appearance and feeding behaviour, vultures are the scavengers who do the work of cleaning up, and keeping the ecosystem healthy.
“The beauty is, despite feeding on infected carcass, vultures do not get infected. The acids in their stomach are potent enough to kill the pathogen. Thus, the chain of infection is broken. It invisibly controls the spread of harmful pathogens causing deadly anthrax, cholera, foot and mouth disease, rabies and distemper,” Bharathidasan says. The birds also prevent the contamination of water sources, especially in the wild. When animals die near watering hole, there is an imminent danger of contamination resulting in a quick spread of infections and mass death. But vultures devour the carcasses in totality thereby preventing a tragic mishap. Despite this, their importance in the ecosystem is not understood, he remarks.
“In India, we have nine species [of vultures]”, says H Byju, who writes about why these birds are indispensable to the biodiversity in his book Valley of Hope — Moyar and Vultures (Don Books). A photographer, independent researcher and conservationist, he adds that in Tamil Nadu, one can spot the long-billed vulture (Indian vulture), red-headed vulture, white-rumped vulture and the Egyptian vulture at Moyar Gorge in the Nilgiris Biosphere of the Western Ghats. “In the last four years, the population has grown by may be 10 percent. One has to learn about Nature and the purpose of scavenging to understand why vultures matter.”
Restoring the population is an uphill task as vultures are slow breeders, says Bharathidasan. “If they become extinct, there will be a huge ripple effect. Other scavengers like rats and dogs may take over, temporarily, but with that comes problems like increased incidence of rabies. According to scientific studies, a veterinary, non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac administered to cattle had led to a catastrophic decline of vulture species in the South Asian region. Though diclofenac is now banned, other equally harmful drugs are still in use,” he adds. Bharathidasan, however, is hopeful that vultures will be back in large numbers and circling the blue skies.