Robin McKie Observer science editor
Sunday 16 October 2016 00.05 BST
Vultures are rarely viewed as the poster boys and girls of the natural world. They have repulsive eating habits and are strikingly ugly. Nevertheless, they play a critical role in maintaining the ecological health of many parts of the world.
Vultures consume animal carcasses more effectively than any other scavengers and because their digestive juices contain acids that neutralise pathogens such as cholera and rabies they prevent diseases spreading. They act as dead-end hosts for numerous unpleasant ailments. But many ecologists are now warning that vultures across the planet are under serious threat thanks to habitat loss, deliberate and accidental poisoning, and use of the birds’ body parts as traditional medicine cures.
All these risks will be emphasised by British photographer Charlie Hamilton James in a series of images that will be shown as part of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which opens at the Natural History Museum this week.
His photographs of vultures – and the growing environmental risks that threaten to wipe them out – have won Hamilton James the exhibition’s wildlife photojournalist of the year award.
“I like underdogs,” he said last week. “That is why I like vultures. The trouble is that vultures are now under such stress in the wild – for several reasons. They are facing a massive catastrophe yet they do so much for the environment and do so much to contain disease.”
Vultures are one of the fastest declining groups of animals in the world. In India, all nine species of the bird are threatened with extinction, largely through the indiscriminate use of diclofenac, a common anti-inflammatory drug administered to livestock but which is lethal for the vultures that eat the corpses of cattle.
“There is now a real danger that a disease like rabies will spread because there are hardly any vultures left to clean up corpses left in the open,” Hamilton James said.