Pittsburgh Scientist's Research Part of Global Effort to Save Vultures

For most people, the slow spiral of airborne vultures means that some unlucky animal has died. Now vulture populations in some regions of the world are dying. Several species may even face extinction. A Pittsburgh scientist is part of an international effort to save these massive scavengers that act as nature's cleanup crew. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray has the story.

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OPEN:For most people, the slow spiral of airborne vultures means that some unlucky animal has died. Now vulture populations in some regions of the world are dying. Several species may even face extinction. A Pittsburgh scientist is part of an international effort to save these massive scavengers that act as nature's cleanup crew. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray has the story.

NAT SOUND: VULTURE MAKES CAWING SOUNDS:
KATZNER: We're going to be interacting with Sarabi who is an American black vulture.

MURRAY: That's Todd Katzner, Director of Conservation and Field Research at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh.

KATZNER: Sarabi came to us four or five years ago. She is imprinted on people so she thinks that she is people or that we're all vultures.

MURRAY: When it comes to eating, Katzner says Sarabi is all vulture. NAT SOUND: SIRROBI EATING She makes short work of a morning snack of mice and chick pieces.

TODD: The Breakfast of Champions
ANN: That was fast. Vultures can eat quickly.

KATZNER: The sound you heard of Sarabi eating is actually very typical They are nature's clean up crew. If there are sick or unhealthy animals in the wild and they die, it's really not good for other animals to have that animal and the bacteria and everything else out there. And so vultures come in, eat the meat off of the carcass. With the meat goes the disease.

MURRAY: To be able to do that, vultures have to have impressive digestive systems. Scientists don't know all the details about how their digestion works but they do know that vultures have a lot of strong stomach acid. They can eat really toxic things like anthrax-tainted meat and they're just fine.

KATZNER: That's one of the things that was so amazing to people when vulture populations in Asia started to decline. People couldn't figure out what they could be eating that could be killing them because their digestive system is so remarkable in so many ways.

MURRAY: I understand an ornithologist a few years ago did figure it out.
KATZNER: Well, the whole process started with a friend of mine,†Vibhu Prakash, an Indian ornithologist. This was almost 20 years ago that Vibhu started seeing vultures near Barrackpore...sitting in a tree with their heads hanging down. Eventually they'd just fall out of the tree and die on the ground.

MURRAY: Since then, Indian white-backed vulture populations have plummeted from 30 or 40 million birds to just a few thousand. In 2003, an American ornithologist discovered the reason for this huge decline: an anti-inflammatory drug called Diclofenac. Residues of the drug in livestock carcasses caused acute kidney failure in vultures that ate the tainted meat. Because of this, diclofenac has been banned as a veterinary medicine in India, Pakistan and Nepal but it's probably still being used. Scientists in India are doing captive breeding in case wild populations completely die out. There's also vulture research going on in other parts of South Asia.

KATZNER: That's actually where the National Aviary comes into the process. Because the work that we're doing is with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Cambodia and also in Kazakhstan.

MURRAY: Can we take a look at the slides of the work you're doing in Kazakhstan and Cambodia?
KATZNER: Absolutely.

MURRAY: Katzner's images of vulture habitat in southern Kazakhstan show open meadows high up in the mountains. Sheep and cattle graze there. Katzner and other researchers have been going to this remote part of the world for several years .

KATZNER: We ask people if any livestock have died...we drive up to those sites Usually the vultures have been there. When vultures feed on the carcass they leave feathers. And when we go to the carcass, we're able to pick up sometimes 500 or 1000 feathers.

MURRAY: Once the feathers are collected, Katzner's team extracts DNA from them to identify individual birds. The scientists will use this information to estimate the overall size of vulture populations in Cambodia and Kazakhstan. This new identification method is faster than marking and recapturing birds.† Speed is important because these big scavengers are in so much trouble globally.

KATZNER: Vultures are in dire conservation straits in much of the world because of things like habitat loss, poisoning and now these new problems like diclofenac.

MURRAY: Katzner likes to point out that the vultures' plight isn't just an avian health issue, it's also a human health issue. As more and more vultures die, more and more of us could be exposed to diseases. He hopes the world is paying attention. For The Allegheny Front, this is Ann Murray.

OUTRO: September 5th is International Vulture Awareness Day. Groups all over the world are organizing activities to highlight vulture conservation and to raise awareness. For those of you who want to know more about these amazing animals and Todd Katzner's work, check out our web site at alleghenyfront.org