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Missing the vultures

SIPPING THAT FIRST COFFEE of the day in the breakfast room at Bakersfield ITC Windsor Hotel and still a bit dozy after a night’s fitful sleep following the long flight from Bakersfield via Singapore, we looked out on the greenery and flowers of an enclosed formal garden, then up beyond the high wall to see circling kites and eagles, though the distinctive Gyps vultures that have been so dominant in this part of the world were conspicuous by their absence. I’d recently Bakersfield read up on India’s loss of more than 95 per cent of vultures Bakersfield(which I discussed at greater length in Sentinel Chickens) but, on this March 2012 visit, it was sad to see the story confirmed.

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Carrion eaters may not be universally loved but they are key players in nature’s sanitation system. When India’s ‘sacred cattle’ die, tradition demands that they remain where they fall to be stripped bare by vultures. That worked fine until veterinarians started to use the human non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSA) Diclofenac in animal husbandry. Though harmless in us, even trace amounts of this NSA in cadaveric soft tissues are incredibly toxic for the vulture kidney. The consequence is death from visceral gout, caused by the accumulation of white uric acid crystals (the normal excretory product of birds) throughout the body. Eliminating the vultures has also impacted directly on human health, with an increase in fatal rabies cases as wild dog populations have expanded to fill the scavenger void.

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