Tuesday 17 September 2019

Drugged carcass threat to vultures

The griffon vulture
The griffon vulture

Joe Kennedy

Vultures may be fascinating birds, if not in any way endearing. Perhaps this is much like certain capitalist enterprises to which their name has been loaned.

The griffon vulture, common in Spain, is Gyps Fulvus - and Carl Linnaeus's Latin tag may already have been appropriated by the wits of the world of commerce. Be that as it may, like its cousin the black vulture (Aegypius monachus) the griffon is an ugly creature with massive wings, scrawny neck and ferocious beak for tearing apart the flesh of dead animals.

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I have watched these birds soaring above rocky ravines and on the nest in caves (with a fixed scope) on the Spanish-Portuguese borderlands, where in the expanse of Extremadura many species of eagle may also be seen as normal birds of the air.

One may travel along dirt tracks through expanses of low-intensive farming land where stubble remains after cereal is cut, land left fallow and then ploughed, leaving a sustainable habitat and food source for all birds and wild creatures.

Like a scene from a Western movie, one may come upon a sun-bleached ribcage of a dead sheep or cow - or indeed a recently deceased beast left out by a farmer, duly recompensed by the local administration.

This reminded me of advertisements in the Drogheda Independent and The Argus of my youth, encouraging farmers to leave "dead and worn-out animals" in knackers' yards - later perhaps, to become pet-food plants. (And where, I was once told, there was a pecking order of cats and dogs doing 'tastings'!)

Among the Iberian vultures there is also a pecking order. Although the black-faced bird is a lone ranger that nests in the sparse tree-scape of desolate mountain ranges, at the site of a dead animal carcass it occupies the higher rank of scavenger. The griffon must shuffle about on the side until the black one's appetite is sated.

There is another vulture, a bearded one (G barbatus), found almost exclusively in remote mountain places, which is bigger than its cousins with long wedge-shaped tail. It leads a solitary life, patrolling endlessly on the lookout for food, especially freshly killed animals. It wastes nothing, dropping bones on to rocks to break and swallowing the small pieces which powerful gastric juices dissolve so the marrow is ingested.

But it has emerged that scoffing dead cattle has become a dodgy business for these cleaners-up because of continued use of a veterinary drug called diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory used to treat cow ailments such as mastitis.

In the late 1990s, in the Indian subcontinent, widespread use of the drug seriously impacted on the considerable vulture population which was, and is, vital in clearing carrion. It attacks the birds' kidneys.

India, Pakistan and Bangladesh solved the problem by banning diclofenac and substituting a drug called meloxicam, a vulture-friendly alternative. Diclofenac is still used in Spain, home to 95pc of Europe's vultures. There are currently no damaging statistics that I could find - but BirdLife International has understandable concerns about the future of the griffon population should it not be replaced.

Sunday Independent

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