Vultures In Crisis

It’s that time of year again...the time to sit back, relax, and think about vultures, of course!

The first Saturday in September is International Vulture Awareness Day, a day where people and organizations raise awareness about the health of vulture populations all over the world, and engage the public in the fight to conserve and protect these amazing creatures.

"Just so you're aware...I'm watching you"                            Photo: WRSPA

"Just so you're aware...I'm watching you"                            Photo: WRSPA

Unfortunately, around the globe not everyone shares the same positive feelings for vultures. Sometimes lack of information, or cultural beliefs can prevent governments from understanding the effects the vulture population can have on the environment, and often critical protections for these threatened animals happen too late.

In Pennsylvania, our resident New World vulture species– the black vulture and the turkey vulture– have maintained a healthy population (and you can read a little about them here!). However, there are many species, especially of Old World vultures, that are not faring so well on other continents.

Over the last few decades, Asia and Africa have both seen drastic drop in their vulture populations. Much of this decline is attributed to the vultures consuming poisoned or medically-treated carcasses, some of which were left in the environment to purposefully target and kill vultures.

The Slender-billed vulture, one of the species affected

The Slender-billed vulture, one of the species affected


The Indian Vulture Crisis was especially detrimental to the populations of the white-rumped vulture, the Indian vulture, and the slender-billed vulture, with their numbers almost completely wiped out. It took over a decade to trace the cause of the drastic vulture decline to an anti-inflammatory drug, Diclofenac, often used to treat cattle. Despite the vulture’s ability to digest carcasses with all manner of diseases from rabies to botulism (they are often described as a “dead-end to pathogens”), Diclofenac caused fatal renal failure in these species.

Diclofecac, an anti-inflammatory drug fatal to some vultures                         Photo:

Diclofecac, an anti-inflammatory drug fatal to some vultures                         Photo:

The Indian Vulture Crisis illustrated on a large scale how things introduced to the environment can have unintended consequences, but it also illustrated just how big of a role vultures played in the ecosystem.

Prior to this, vultures were perhaps misunderstood for their value to the environment, and their deaths initially were not cause for alarm or concern. As the vulture populations quickly declined, the populations of other scavenger species (wild dogs, rats, etc) that were not affected by the traces of the drug soared as a result of their increased access to food.

The increase of the feral dog population hit India the hardest as the rates of rabies (and the cost of rabies treatment and management) also increased. Suddenly, people saw the “value” in maintaining a healthy ecosystem– one that included vultures.

So on this day, we celebrate vultures and commit to protecting and preserving these wonderful animals, by recognizing their "value" before it's too late!


To learn more about the vultures in crisis in Asia and Africa, please check out the websites below!

And if you REALLY want to nerd out– here's the original study linking Diclofenac to the vulture deaths in India:

"You Won't Save What You Don't Love": Conservation Efforts That Make You Care

Photo by Grahm S. Jones                                                                                                                                  Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Ohio. After a photo shoot at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, a clouded leopard cub climbs on Sartore's head.                       

Photo by Grahm S. Jones                                                                                                                            

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Ohio. After a photo shoot at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, a clouded leopard cub climbs on Sartore's head.                    


Joel Sartore is a National Geographic wildlife photographer who with his Photo Ark project has been on a mission to record the 12,000 captive species around the world—this includes many species that are endangered or threatened. He is an inspiration for us here at WRSPA, so we'd like to take a moment to highlight his work.

The photographs in the Photo Ark are breathtakingly beautiful and they seem to capture what's unique about each animal. There’s something about these images, all of which appear against a stark black or white background, that makes you stop for a moment and consider the truly amazing biodiversity on our planet. As with all of Mr. Sartore's work, each animal no matter how large or small, how popular or how unknown, is treated with the same respect and reverence. 

A Fiji Island banded iguana, Brachylophus fasciatus, at the Los Angeles Zoo                                                  

A Fiji Island banded iguana, Brachylophus fasciatus, at the Los Angeles Zoo                                                

Joel often states that, “you won’t save what you don’t love”, and many of his photographs have inspired local governments and institutions around the globe to stop and reevaluate how to protect and help these species. PBS stations are airing a three-part documentary RARE: Creatures of the Photo Ark that gives an intimate behind-the-scenes look into Joel’s work, and some of the rare and wonderful creatures he’s captured on film.

This quote really hit home for me, because it’s true–with so many different things competing for our attention and resources, we won’t go the extra mile to help something or someone unless we have a more concrete experience to draw upon. Mr. Sartore is using his artful photographic skills to get people to stop and think.

We humans need to care because the interconnectedness of the natural world means that habitat destruction and the disappearance of species can have an effect on our lives. It’s important to care about the northern white rhino, the majestic Spanish imperial eagle, or the aldabra giant tortoise.

I also feel passionate that the time to care about any species is NOW. My heart breaks at the thought that there are three northern white rhinos left on the planet. Conservationists work to captive breed species and restore habitat in order to curb the disappearance of these endangered species.

“Fifty percent of all animals are threatened with extinction, and it’s folly to think we can drive half of everything else to extinction but that people will be just fine,”
— Joel Sartore

One of our goals at WRSPA is to connect people to their wild co-habitants of this earth. We want people to consider common species—the red tailed hawks, robins, geese, skunks, opossums, squirrels, salamanders, snakes, moths, bats, and the turtles. The time to care about these creatures is BEFORE they are compromised, while they are still robust and with us. Just as with our bodies, it’s much easier to work to prevent the break or the illness than it is to heal it.

A pygmy slow loris, Nycticebus pygmaeus, at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium                       

A pygmy slow loris, Nycticebus pygmaeus, at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium                     

At WRSPA we want to help the public get to know (and get to love!), the species that we interact with every day. They all matter. Personally, the more I learn about an animal, the more I interact with it, and the more I discover— the more I love and want to work to protect it. This is why we are launching our Species Spotlight series, where, with any luck, in the coming weeks and months we’ll get you to love each and every creature we highlight as much as we do!

You don’t have to visit a zoo or a nature preserve in order to see something wonderful. Sometimes, all you have to do is go outside and look around. This requires no money and little effort. You’ll see the songbirds flying around, the vulture soaring overhead, the colony of ants weaving in and out of the sidewalk cracks. Even though we might fail to recognize how wonderful these things are amidst our busy lives, it’s important to take a moment to appreciate the interconnectedness of it all.

All photographs shown here are used with permission from the National Geographic Photo Ark. Love what you see? Please take the time to check out Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark project and take a look at the excellent tips for how YOU can help be part of the conservation solution!