Vultures get a lot of bad press.
Unlike other birds which are praised for their melodious song or bright plumage, vultures have been traditionally reviled for feeding greedily on carcasses, and what many see is as a repulsive look. In many cultures, they are considered an ill omen and the Nepali language has many derogatory phrases like गिद्धे दृष्टि.
A famous dialogue in the critically acclaimed and commercially successful recent Nepali movie Loot proclaims Kathmandu as a ‘the city of vultures’. What an insult to vultures.
This negative perception of vultures does not take into account the enormous ecosystem services provided by the raptors in consuming carrion, and reducing the spread of disease.
In fact, when vultures nearly became extinct in the Subcontinent in the past two decades because of the use of the veterinary anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac, animal carcasses lay rotting in the fields and jungles becoming hotbeds for pathogens.
South Asia first started seeing a massive decline in its vulture population starting the 1990s, and no one quite knew why. The White-rumped, Long-billed and Slender-billed vultures declined by more than 99% in India and Pakistan.
In the Nepal, between 1995 and 2001, there was a 96% decline in the Slender-billed vulture population, and the numbers of White-rumped vultures had gone down by 91% until 2011.
Researchers then zeroed in on the cause: the use of the analgesic diclofenac to treat sick livestock. Residue of the drug in the carcasses of those animals when consumed by vultures caused their kidneys to fail. Studies have shown that just 30ml of diclofenac can kill as many as 800 vultures.