Old World vulture
Old World vultures are vultures that are found in the Old World, i.e. the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, and which belong to the family Accipitridae, which also includes eagles, buzzards, kites, and hawks.
|Old World vultures|
|Lappet-faced vultures (left) and a white-backed vulture|
Old World vultures are not closely related to the superficially similar New World vultures and condors, and do not share that group's good sense of smell. The similarities between the two groups of vultures are due to convergent evolution, rather than a close relationship. They were widespread in both the Old World and North America during the Neogene. Old World vultures are probably a polyphyletic group within Accipitridae, with the palm-nut vulture, Egyptian vulture and bearded vulture separate from the others. Most authorities refer to two major clades: Gypaetinae and Aegypiinae (Aegypius, Gyps, Sarcogyps, Torgos, Trigonoceps and possibly Necrosyrtes). The former seem to be nested with Perninae hawks, while the latter are closely related and possibly even synonymous with Aquilinae. Within Aegypiinae, Torgos, Aegypius, Sarcogyps and Trigonoceps are particularly closely related and possibly within the same genus.
Both Old World and New World vultures are scavenging birds, feeding mostly from carcasses of dead animals. Old World vultures find carcasses exclusively by sight. A particular characteristic of many vultures is a semi-bald head, sometimes without feathers or with just simple down. Historically, it was thought that this was due to feeding habits, as feathers would be glued with decaying flesh and blood. However, more recent studies have shown that it is actually a thermoregulatory adaptation to avoid facial overheating; the presence or absence of complex feathers seems to matter little in feeding habits, as some vultures are quite raptorial.
|Subfamily||Genus||Common and binomial names||Image||Range|
|High mountains in southern Europe, the Caucasus, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Tibet|
|Forests and savannahs across sub-Saharan Africa|
|Southwestern Europe and North Africa to India|
|Southwestern and central Europe, Turkey, the central Middle East, northern India and central and eastern Asia|
|†Aegypius jinniushanensis||Formerly China|
|†Aegypius prepyrenaicus||Formerly Spain|
|Mountains in southern Europe, North Africa and Asia|
|Northern and central India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Southeast Asia|
|The Sahel region of Central Africa|
|Central and peninsular India|
|The Sub-Himalayan regions of India and into Southeast Asia|
|The Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau|
|Savannahs of West and East Africa|
|The Indian Subcontinent, with small disjunct populations in Southeast Asia|
|Sub-Saharan Africa, the Sinai and Negev deserts and northwestern Saudi Arabia|
† = extinct
Population declines, threats, and implications
More than half of the Old World vulture species are listed as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered by the IUCN Red List. Population declines are caused by a variety of threats that vary by species and region, with most notable declines in Asia due to diclofenac use. As vultures play an important role in ecosystems, their population decline can have cultural, public health, and economic implications for communities. Within Africa, a combination of poisonings and vulture trade (including use as bushmeat and traditional medicine) account for roughly 90% of the population declines.
Diclofenac poisoning has caused the vulture population in India and Pakistan to decline by up to 99%, and two or three species of vulture in South Asia are nearing extinction. This has been caused by the practice of medicating working farm animals with diclofenac, which is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) with anti-inflammatory and pain-killing actions. Diclofenac administration keeps animals that are ill or in pain working on the land for longer, but, if the ill animals die, their carcasses contain diclofenac. Farmers leave the dead animals out in the open, relying on vultures to tidy up. Diclofenac present in carcass flesh is eaten by vultures, which are sensitive to diclofenac, and they suffer kidney failure, visceral gout, and death as a result of diclofenac poisoning.
Meloxicam (another NSAID) has been found to be harmless to vultures and should prove an acceptable alternative to diclofenac. The Government of India banned diclofenac, but over a year later, in 2007, it continued to be sold and remains a problem in other parts of the world.
Poisoning accounts for a majority of vulture deaths in Africa. Ivory poachers poison carcasses with the intent of killing vultures, since vultures circling over a carcass alert authorities to a kill. Vultures are also unintentionally poisoned when they consume carcasses of predators that have been poisoned by livestock farmers.
Traditional medicine / belief and use
Another part of the African vulture trade is use for bushmeat consumption.
The decline in vultures has led to hygiene problems in India as carcasses of dead animals now tend to rot, or be eaten by rats or feral dogs, rather than be consumed by vultures. Rabies among these other scavengers is a major health threat. India has one of the world's highest incidences of rabies.
A project named "Vulture Restaurant" is underway in Nepal in an effort to conserve the dwindling number of vultures. The "restaurant" is an open grassy area where naturally dying, sick, and old cows are fed to the vultures.
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- Publico.pt: A griffon vulture nest
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