How to Appreciate Vultures

A Bird’s-Eye View

"World" Center? The first time I heard the cluster of buildings on the hill mentioned, honestly, I laughed. “The World Center for Birds of Prey” seemed lofty for our valley, 330-ish miles from any major metropolis. How little I understood the accuracy of the moniker and the scope of my error! With a sky-high mission and projects that circle the globe, the humble buildings at the World Center for Birds of Prey belie the consequential work that is launched there.

I. Funding

In the 1950s and ‘60s, use of the pesticide DDT caused a drastic decline in the peregrine falcon population. By 1970, the falcons were extinct in the eastern United States, and fewer than 40 pairs remained in the west. Ornithologists worked to ban DDT and restore the Peregrine Falcon population. In 1999, the peregrine falcon was removed from the Endangered Species List. Public financial support spurred the creation of the Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit conservation organization, to manage the resources coming in.

II. Four Quarters

Influence across the globe soon resulted from the work of the Peregrine Fund. To date, the nonprofit has been involved with conservation efforts on behalf of more than 100 species in 65 countries worldwide. Current endeavors span the four quarters with projects in Canada, India and Southern Asia, Kenya and Eastern Africa, Madagascar, Panama, Belize and Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Haiti and the United States.

III. Make a Difference

Many things make a difference to raptors’ survival, including poisons, drugs, loss of habitats and lead ammunition. But what difference do raptors make to us? Birds of prey are the canary in the mine, an indicator of environmental degradation. They are near the top of a food chain that’s only sustainable when balanced. Changes in food sources or landscapes that provide shelter to raise young have tremendous trickle-down effects.

Consider Asian Vultures. In the 1980s, large numbers of vultures lived in India and Southern Asia—approximately 80 million individual white-backed vultures at one point. India relied on having large numbers of vultures due to the estimated 500 million cows living there, only 4 percent of which are eaten by humans. The rest, after dying, are placed in carcass dumps where the vultures consume their remains. Between 1992 and 2000, the populations of all three species of vultures in India declined by a staggering 97–99 percent. Vultures were dropping dead, and nobody knew why. In 2003, Peregrine Fund biologists discovered there was an anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, which was being administered to suffering cattle by veterinarians. If a cow died after receiving diclofenac, the drug remained in its system and was consumed by vultures. The birds then died of kidney failure. It mattered to the locals because, without vultures, the feral dog population boomed to 5.5 million animals, thriving on the extra food. As a result, around 38.5 million more humans were bitten by dogs, which led to an additional 47,000 human deaths from rabies. This cost the economy of India more than $34 billion in medical expenses.

IV. Eagle Eyes on the Prize

“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”  ~Helen Keller

The Peregrine Fund is non-political, solution-oriented and hands-on. The nonprofit's “Vision 2050: to CHANGE THE FUTURE” includes the objectives of conserving raptors, engaging people and cultivating excellence. The action steps toward these goals are specific and timebound.

It’s said an eagle has 20/5 vision. Humans don’t see so acutely, even with corrective lenses. Perhaps that is why I didn't recognize those buildings for what they are. Since learning the impact of raptor conservation on my world, my vision has changed.

World Center? Absolutely.

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