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Egyptian Vulture, neophron percnopterus, the unassuming hero of the animal kingdom

Generally, vultures get a bad rep and perhaps we have Disney to blame for always portraying vultures as the baddies in all our childhood favourites of Jungle Book, Robin Hood and Snow White to name a few.

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The vulture poses for us on the rock as it waits for its turn to feed. Photograph by William Asquith.
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A Egyptian vulture soars above a basking leopard looking for a carcass to feast upon. Photograph by Varun Kutty.
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The Egyptian vultures are the most common of the vultures to be seen on the ground. Here the vulture eyes up a sheep carcass to his left. Photograph by William Asquith.

Vultures however, in the animal kingdom, are essential with many studies showing their importance with regards to cleaning up after all other wildlife. They are coined as the ‘rubbish-men’ of the animal kingdom as they feast in the leftovers of predator. This trait is not something to grimace at but to hail as not only do they prevent illnesses of the area’s wildlife but also in turn by clearing up carcasses, they prevent the spread of disease that can affect the local human population.

 

Their stomachs contain a high concentration of acid that break down many diseases other scavengers would develop on the same carcass. These carcasses attract feral dogs, which consequently have a higher chance of developing rabies. The current estimated cost that India to control rabies alone is at $23 million, to put in perspective is 27% of the Department of Animal Husbandry in 2012 (information gathered from WHO). Although a larger population of vultures would not eradicate completely rabies from India, it is definitely a long-term solution to decreasing the number of rabid dogs. There was another study showing again that it was economically more beneficial to India to breed and release vultures that to run a “carcass disposal plant” which costs INR 79 million to run for 10 years. A vulture have an average life span of 50 years which would is the equivalent of valuing a single vulture at INR696,000 (IUCN India Country Office).

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The vulture’s wing span can be as long as 170cm, the same height as an average male human. Photograph by William Asquith.

From a conservation angle, Egyptian vultures, and many other vultures become a welcome helping hand in anti-poaching. Circling high in the sky in numbers, they become a signpost for carcasses. This in turn could potentially help pointing to any carcass poached by illegal hunters and forest department rangers will always investigate just in case.

 

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Monogamous pairs of Egyptian Vultures often return to the same area to breed. From the SUJÁN Archives.

As most vultures are increasingly threatened worldwide from avoidable causes, such as the types of drugs given to livestock being poisonous to vultures, the Egyptian vulture is no different. Classed as endangered on the IUCN Red List since 2007 and with a global population between 21,000-67,000, you can see that to come close to an Egyptian Vulture is a surreal and humbling appearance.

 

Jawai is the perfect habitat for these birds as they nest on rocky ledges and cracks with a lot of open country. They tend to also live around human habitation scavenging on the human’s food wastage and their monogamous demeanour means that the same breeding pair may return to the same area for generations.

 

We had sighted this vulture on the ground and suddenly from behind one of our guests called out “oh, what an odd looking chicken!”…I’ve heard a lot worse and to be fair, my guest wasn’t so far off the point as the vulture’s yellow facial features bears a ‘slight’ resemblance to a chicken’s own red facial features adding to the fact that it is also known as the pharaoh’s chicken.

 

As we neared, we saw this adult vulture eyeing up a sheep carcass that at that time was being served as dinner for a stray dog and some crows. This vulture however, wasn’t interested in chasing them off the kill and instead sat, posing for us, while he waited patiently to see if the carcass would become free anytime soon. However, his patience began to wear thin, and he decided to move off and look elsewhere and with one big jump he took off into the air.

 

By witnessing these glorious creatures in the flesh, my guests were able to overcome their stigma of seeing vultures as a creature partnered with disdain and instead see them for the magnificent raptors they are… if only there more of them around to change everyone’s mind.!

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