Pesticides Are Killing off the Andean Condor
High above the Argentinian plains, an Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) — one of the world's largest flying bird species — catches the distinctive aroma of decaying flesh on the wind. It's quickly joined by other condors, perhaps a dozen or more, who start circling in the familiar pattern of all carrion-loving vultures.
Soon the massive condors spy the source of the delicious smell: a dead sheep or goat lying in a field. The hungry birds quickly angle in for descent, land around the body and begin to feed, tearing into the skin and meat with their sharp beaks.
Then the condors also begin to die.
At first they appear merely disoriented. Then they start to stumble, convulse and fall around the dead sheep. A few may try to fly, flapping mighty wings that span 10 feet — only to crash to the ground just a few yards away.
Eventually the field is littered with dead condors. Few, if any, escape.
This gruesome scene has played out several times in Argentina in recent years. In one incident that made worldwide headlines, 34 Andean condors died at a single site in 2018 — a major blow to a species with an estimated population of just 6,700 mature individuals, about 2,500 of which live in Argentina.
What's killing these birds? Tragically, it's a case of persecution by pesticide. Livestock owners who needlessly fear the imposing condors — which only eat carrion (not live prey) — attract the birds with dead sheep and other animals laced with powerful, illegal neurotoxin pesticides such as carbofuran and parathion. They know that anything that eats the carcasses will quickly die — in theory, leaving the rest of nearby livestock "safe" from predators.
Andean condors aren't the only target. Farmers also use the pesticide-laden bodies to lure in pumas, foxes, lynx, eagles and other predators that really do occasionally prey upon livestock.
But it's condors that have been hit hardest by the practice. A new paper published Jan. 15 in the journal Biological Conservation calls the poisonings "the greatest threat to the Andean condor."
"We conclude that this problem can lead to the extinction of the species if we do not take action urgently," says the paper's lead author, Carlos I. Piña, a biologist with Universidad Autonoma de Entre Rios.
Piña and his fellow researchers — Rayen Estrada Pachecoab, N. Luis Jácome, Vanesa Astore and Carlos E. Borghi — studied 301 birds treated or collected by the Andean Condor Rescue Center in Argentina between 2001 and 2018. Using records and necropsies, they identified 21 poisoning events in Argentina that killed a total of 99 condors — 77 deaths in 2017 and 2018 alone (the paper does not include data from 2019). They also identified another 29 incidents of possible poisoning. In some cases the rescue center located birds suffering symptoms of poisoning that died a few hours after discovery.
The researchers also found that the poisonings occur throughout Argentina, have increased in frequency since the beginning of 2017, and now represent 79 percent of deaths reported to the rescue center.
An Andean condor in the conservation breeding program at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. John R. Platt / The Revelator / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
The deaths are particularly alarming because condors already face a range of other threats, including illegal hunting, lead poisoning (similar to California condors) and collisions with power lines.
On top of that, their populations grow slowly under the best of circumstances.
"Condors have a very low reproductive rate," Piña explains. They don't reach sexual maturity until they're 9 or 10 years old, and then they only nest every two years and raise a single chick at a time.
It's now likely that more Andean condors are dying than are being born.
"These deaths occur at a rate and on a scale that does not allow the natural recovery of individuals to the population," says Piña.
And it's not just the condors being killed. The bodies of animals from eight other species have been found near dead condors, according to the paper. These include American black vultures (Coragyps atratus), kelp gull (Larus dominicanus), Molina's hog-nosed skunks (Conepatus chinga) and pumas (Puma concolor).
The poisons are also potentially harmful to humans. "There are oral records of cases of people poisoned by the placement of these poisons," Piña says. This poses a risk for officials tasked with cleaning up kill sites. The EPA links acute short-term parathion exposure to central nervous disorders, depressed red blood cell activity, nausea and other health risks.
And then there's the big picture: the environmental cost of not having condors on the landscape if this problem persists.
"Vultures occupy a fundamental role in the ecosystem, since they eliminate the carcasses of dead animals which, if not removed, become sources of infection and can affect human health," Piña says. "They're like great natural cleaners."
In additional to fulfilling that ecological role, condors also have cultural importance.
"For the native peoples of South America, it is the sacred bird that connects the world we live in with the cosmos," Piña says. "We see condors on the emblems, shields and flags of the Andean countries. The loss of these birds also represents a great cultural loss for our society."
An Andean condor spreads its wings at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. John R. Platt / The Revelator / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
With the condors fulfilling so many important roles, and the frequency of poisonings increasing, how do we solve this problem?
Piña and his fellow researchers recommend a three-tier approach.
The first involves educating livestock owners about the importance of condors and the health risks from the pesticides. "We believe that working on education about the dangerousness of the use of these toxic baits is one of the lines of action needed to address this problem," Piña says.
That won't solve everything, he acknowledges, because some people already know the poisons are dangerous but use them anyway.
That brings us to the second solution: protecting livestock. "It's essential to find ways to reduce predation without affecting environmental health," Piña says. "An example could be the incorporation of cattle protection dogs, which have been shown to considerably reduce predation in Patagonia Argentina." The researchers have started studies with cattle breeders to understand various techniques already in use in different parts of the country, as well as how ranchers perceive livestock losses they experience.
The third tier involves the law. These pesticides are already illegal — parathion was banned in Argentina in 1993, and a new law banning carbofuran and four other pesticides went into effect this past October — but they're widely used anyway. Piña says adding one more law could help address that. "We believe that it would be better to have a national law on traceability and prescription of agrochemicals so that their trade is regulated, and sales of these products are under a professional's prescription," he says. "This way the easy access of these products would be diminished a little."
Argentina, meanwhile, isn't taking the problem lightly. In addition to the recent pesticide bans, the country and a partner foundation recently launched the Estrategia Nacional contra Cebos Tóxicos (National Strategy Against Poisoned Carrion). "The [program] aims to improve the detection and treatment of cases of poisoning, minimizing the risk to personnel involved in these processes," Piña reports. "The plan also aims to generate a more precise knowledge of the sites of greatest conflict in order to guide conservation efforts and community outreach and education."
A lot of work remains to be done to save the Andean condor from this emerging threat, but with more than 1 percent of all Andean condors killed since 2017, researchers say it's time for Argentina — and perhaps neighboring countries — to act. Otherwise the great birds may become just another faint waft of death on the wind.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
- Ecuador Announces New National Park in the Andes - EcoWatch ›
- Pesticide Food Poisoning Suspected as 10 Die After Funeral in Peru ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
In Major Win for Indigenous Rights, Supreme Court Rules Much of Eastern Oklahoma Is Still a Reservation
Much of Eastern Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa, remains an Indian reservation, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.
- Federal Judge Orders Trump Admin to Give Native Americans Their ... ›
- Police Were Ready to Shoot Indigenous Pipeline Protesters in ... ›
- Climate Justice, Indigenous Rights Advocates Rally for Wet'suwet'en ... ›
By Tiffany Means
Summer and fall are great seasons to enjoy the outdoors. But if you're already spending extra time outside because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be out of ideas on how to make fresh-air activities feel special. Here are a few suggestions to keep both adults and children entertained and educated in the months ahead, many of which can be done from the comfort of one's home or backyard.
The coronavirus may linger in the air in crowded indoor spaces, spreading from one person to the next, the World Health Organization acknowledged on Thursday, as The New York Times reported. The announcement came just days after 239 scientists wrote a letter urging the WHO to consider that the novel coronavirus is lingering in indoor spaces and infecting people, as EcoWatch reported.
- Airborne Coronavirus Transmission Must Be Taken Seriously, 239 ... ›
- Trump Halts WHO Funding Amidst Criticism of His Own Coronavirus ... ›
- Here's Why COVID-19 Can Spread So Easily at Gyms and Fitness ... ›
- Is the New Coronavirus Airborne? A Study From China Finds Evidence ›
By Angela Nicoletti
The eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains in central Perú are among the most remote places in the world.
- Global Frog Pandemic May Become Even Deadlier as Strains ... ›
- New Species of Diamond Frog Discovered in Remote Pocket of ... ›
- Frogs Are on the Verge of Mass Extinction, Scientists Say - EcoWatch ›
A new analysis by scientists at the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that lemurs and the North Atlantic right whale are on the brink of extinction.
- Trump Admin Denies Endangered Species Protections to Pacific ... ›
- Trump Admin Failed to Protect 241 Species From Extinction ... ›
- New Border Wall Construction Threatens 8 Species With Extinction ... ›
By Julia Vergin
It is undisputed that vitamin D plays a role everywhere in the body and performs important functions. A severe vitamin D deficiency, which can occur at a level of 12 nanograms per milliliter of blood or less, leads to severe and painful bone deformations known as rickets in infants and young children and osteomalacia in adults. Unfortunately, this is where the scientific consensus ends.
Where Does the Deficiency Begin?<p>Nobody knows exactly how much vitamin D a person actually needs. The question of when a deficiency starts is correspondingly controversial. However, vitamin D is becoming increasingly popular.Not only is the pseudo-scientific literature on the "sun vitamin" experiencing an upswing, but the number of published studies has also increased enormously in recent years. For example, in 2019 <a href="https://academic.oup.com/edrv/article/40/4/1109/5126915" target="_blank">a study found that</a> Vitamin D is responsible for keeping the skeleton functional and is associated with cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancer. <br></p>
An All-Rounder<p>Vitamin D levels in the body rise and fall according to sun exposure. If sufficient UV rays reach the skin, the body is able to produce the vitamin itself. However, the human body only derives an estimated 10 to 20 percent of its daily requirement from food.</p><p>The vitamin D that we synthesize from sunlight or food is not biologically active at first. Before the kidneys can produce the biologically active form of the vitamin, known as calcitriol, and release it into the blood, some metabolic processes must take place beforehand.</p><p>In addition, many organs have receptors to which the precursor of calcitriol binds. Further, this substance is also present in blood.</p><p>From this precursor, the organs then produce calcitriol themselves, which the body then uses for countless other processes in the body. This form of vitamin D thus regulates insulin secretion, inhibits tumor growth, and promotes the formation of red blood cells as well as the survival and activity of macrophages, which are important for the <a href="https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/7/2502/htm" target="_blank">immune system.</a></p>
Low Vitamin D, Severe COVID-19 Disease?<p>A research study carried out <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352364620300067?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">at the University of Hohenheim</a> has now established a link between vitamin D deficiency, certain previous diseases, and severe cases of COVID-19.</p><p>According to the study, "there is a lot of evidence that several non-communicable diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome) are associated with low vitamin D plasma levels. These comorbidities, together with the often accompanying vitamin D deficiency, increase the risk of severe COVID-19 events."</p><p>"This statement is completely correct," said Martin Fassnacht, head of endocrinology at the University Hospital of Würzburg. However, he qualifies that it is a pure association, "i.e. a mere observation that these events occur together.</p><p>Dr. Fassnacht is very critical of the hype surrounding vitamin D, but not because he denies the vitamin serves important functions. However, studies on humans have not been able to show that vitamin D has the healing powers many often propagate.</p><p>Fassnacht says, "If you take a closer look, the hopes that the administration of vitamin D has a healing effect have not been confirmed so far."</p>
Association Versus Intervention Studies<p>Many studies on the vitamin are association or observational studies. "By definition, these studies cannot prove the causal relationship, but only point to mere correlations," said Fassnacht. The physician tries to illustrate this with an example:</p><p>"Imagine two groups of 80-year-olds. One group is spry, active and does sports. If you compare them with another group living in nursing homes, the difference in vitamin D levels will be dramatic. Life expectancy would also be extremely different."</p><p>But to try to explain the difference in fitness by vitamin D status alone is far too simplistic. "Vitamin D levels are a good measure of how sick someone is. But not more," says Fassnacht. </p><p>According to Fassnacht, none of the intervention studies carried out to date -- that specifically examined the effect of vitamin D on various diseases -- has been able to confirm the previous association and laboratory studies or the presumed positive effect of vitamin D.</p>
Further Research Is Needed<p>"If a coronavirus infection is suspected, it is therefore absolutely necessary to check the vitamin D status and quickly correct any possible deficit," said the recommendation of the paper published by the University of Hohenheim.</p><p>"Studies are underway to see whether vitamin D helps in COVID-19 infection, but I personally do not believe that this is really the case," says endocrinologist Fassnacht. Nevertheless, he says it is of course useful to carry out these studies.<br></p><p>"I don't want to rule out that there are actually subgroups of people who benefit from an additional vitamin D dose," he says. After all, this has been proven to be the case with a severe deficit.</p><p>In view of the study situation, Fassnacht does not think much of preventive, nationwide vitamin D substitutes. "My belief that the vitamin helps somewhere is very low. But, of course, I can be wrong."</p>
- 8 Ways to Tell if You Are Vitamin D Deficient - EcoWatch ›
- 7 Healthy Foods That Are High in Vitamin D - EcoWatch ›
- 7 Nutrient Deficiencies That Are Incredibly Common ›
Ocean scientists have been busy creating a global network to understand and measure changes in ocean life. The system will aggregate data from the oceans, climate and human activity to better inform sustainable marine management practices.
EcoWatch sat down with some of the scientists spearheading the collaboration to learn more.
Climate models are predicting faster warming of the North Atlantic Ocean, which will shift the Gulf Stream. NASA
- Could the Climate Crisis Spell the End for Maine Lobster? - EcoWatch ›
- 5 Reasons Why Biodiversity Matters - EcoWatch ›
- World Leaders, Media Ignore Biodiversity Report Detailing Mass ... ›
- The Top 10 Ocean Biodiversity Hotspots to Protect - EcoWatch ›