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Vultures and Human Health

Vultures and Human Health

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Does homo sapiens, our species, exist above and somehow independent of the natural world? For the moment, I adopt a premise of some religions, that the Creator gave man dominion over the Earth and all its creatures, great and small, and that our obligation is to use the planet for maximum human benefit. So man cares for other life only insofar as a non-human species serves human needs, and we can ignore any evidence of civilization’s decimating a useless plant or animal species.

Let’s start with big, ugly vultures, scavengers of dead animals. Jane Goodall‘s 2009 book, “Hope for Animals and Their World,” describes what happened when Indian vultures were almost wiped out in a decade, with vulture populations falling 97 percent after 1990. India has almost a billion cattle and, in 1990, had lots of vultures to clean up carcasses, and those of other animals, lying in India’s cities, villages and countryside. With vulture populations crashing, putrefying flesh quickly became breeding grounds for hundreds of lethal mutating pathogens, as well as food for rats and wild dogs which infected thousands of people with rabies. In 2003, raptor biologists figured out that a cheap veterinary drug, first used in India in about 1990, killed vultures after they ate domestic animals treated with the drug. Indian government efforts then reduced, but did not stop, the drug’s use, and there is as yet no safe future for Indian vultures and the services they provide to human health.

Jane Goodall spent 26 years studying chimpanzees in Africa and has a core belief that “we humans are part of, and not separate from, the animal kingdom.” Her book gives many examples of creatures which serve basic human needs, some unexpected and not recognized until it’s very late. The bottom line is that humans depend on other life forms in ways that are not obvious, and societies should be very cautious with actions, such as massive deforestation or putting chemicals into the environment, which might threaten any species’ survival, no matter how distant the kinship.

Goodall changed her life’s course in 1986 when she realized that human actions were destroying habitats of the “amazing animals with whom we share this planet” and hence our own. She recast herself into an advocate who travels 300 days a year asking people to wake up and stop the “ongoing destruction of the natural world,” and to stop it before homo sapiens possibly becomes part of a sixth mass extinction on Earth. Despite the problems she describes, Goodall broadcasts wonder, hope and joy and writes like the distinguished, Cambridge-educated scientist she is.

Image by JackyR (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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