Monday, May 23, 2005

We never met an animal we didn't like

I loved Disney's Fab Four take on vultures, but outside The Jungle Book, vultures have had to grapple with a serious image problem. It's always easier to drum up support for saving cute, furry animals or the king of the jungle over scavenger birds. But wildlife conservationists in India have been worried for a while over the disappearance of vultures; this Independent story explains why.
"Indian ornithologists announced they would be carrying out a census of vultures across the subcontinent. They will be assessing the damage done by the astonishing collapse of India's vulture populations over the past 10 years, in which it is estimated that tens of millions - that's right, tens of millions - of the birds have died...
The great Indian vulture crash was a complete mystery at first; enormous though it was, there was no discernible cause - just as there is still no discernible cause for the disappearance of the house sparrow from the streets of London. It was thought that a mysterious virus was probably responsible.
Last year, however, the mystery was dramatically solved: the culprit was found to be not a virus at all, but a veterinary product, a painkilling drug given to cattle, diclofenac. Scientists found that the drug, which was harmless to humans and to cattle themselves, was highly toxic to vultures of the genus Gyps.