But all that pales in comparison to the world of good they do. Vultures are the environment's great custodians, thanks to a penchant for carrion and GI tracts made of iron. Their digestive system is hostile to anthrax and cholera, and there's no evidence the animals spread illness to humans. In fact, their eating of carcasses might even lower rates of disease in a given area. But despite their consumptive prowess, vultures still succumb to poison - like a drug Spain recently made more widely available for use in livestock.
Veterinarians in Europe are asking governments to ban the pharmaceutical diclofenac, which is regularly given to cattle and pigs. Although it's considered safe for farm animals and people - it's given only to humans in the U.S. - the drug causes the birds' kidneys to fail.
A decade ago, the anti-inflammatory drug devastated South Asian vulture populations after the birds ate dead cattle and pigs. By the time India banned the use of the drug in 2006, the population that had numbered in the millions was close to disappearing; in an Indian national park, the population of some vulture species shrunk by as much as 97 percent over a 15-year period. It wasn't until 2012 when the number of vultures in India began to rise again, though slightly.
Given this bleak history, vets in Europe want to stop diclofenac use before their vultures go, too. "I was shocked when I first heard that diclofenac had been authorized for use in - of all places - Spain, which is a stronghold for vultures in Europe," said Thijs Kuiken, a veterinary pathologist at the Dutch institute Erasmus Medical Center, in a statement published Monday. (Spain allowed veterinary diclofenac to be marketed beginning in 2013.) "This example shows that we need to radically change the way we deal with pharmaceuticals, both those used in human and veterinary medicine."
Along with an international team of researchers, Kuiken recently wrote a report outlining the way pharmaceutical treatment of livestock could be improved. As part of One Health, a global initiative to link environmental issues with veterinary medicine, the paper emphasizes taking the ecosystem into account at all stages of drug development.
"The near total loss of South Asia's vultures was a tragedy, and one that could be repeated here in Europe if action is not taken to prevent the introduction of diclofenac to the food chain," stated Wildlife Conservation Society veterinarian and co-author Martin Gilbert. "We now have the advantage of foresight, and can only hope that the EU follows the commendable response of their South Asian counterparts, who acted quickly to remove the drug from vultures' food."