The White Father – the new face of Madzharovo


Photo: Dimitar Gradinarov

After the International Vulture Awareness Day on the 5th of September, Madzharovo has a new “face”. A huge graffiti (16 x 6 meters) of an Egyptian vulture is painted high at the entrance of the vulture’s town.

The art is made by 140 Ideas and portrays the vulture’s role in the lives of humans. Since ancient times these birds have watched over the people and their farm animals, cleansing the carrion and preventing the spread of diseases.  Like an aerial army of sanitarians they were taking care of our health. There is a legend amongst the Muslims of Eastern Rhodopi that the Egyptian vulture has saved Muhammad. While crossing the desert The Prophet was abducted by a large eagle. Muhammad pleaded with all kinds of animals to help him escape, but they all feared the claws of the raptor too much. Only one animal answered the call for help, back then black in colour and less prominent, the crafty Egyptian vulture rescued The Prophet. In gratitude Muhammad blessed the vulture with immortality. And so the bird became white and sacred. Until this day the locals are still calling the Egyptian vulture “Ak baba”, which in Turkish means “White Father” or “Sacred Father”. The adult birds’ plumage is predominantly white and they often nest in sacred places – in cliff churches and Thracian shrines. As for their immortality, it is likely that this myth is related to the birds’ habit of reusing the same nest generation after generation for tens even hundreds of years. Unfortunately, in reality these birds are very vulnerable and are listed as an endangered species. According to the grim statistical forecast, the Egyptian vulture may disappear from the country in the next 25 years unless we take urgent actions for its protection.

But are these birds still valuable to the people in the 21st century? Egyptian vultures from the Balkan Peninsula are wintering in the Sahel region in Africa, where local population of nomads subsist on livestock breeding. During the European winter there is a dry period in Africa and the local tribes, along with their numerous flocks of camels, cattle and goat, are heading for the temporary water basins. The vultures are there as well. In these regions people don’t have access to veterinary medicine to protect their livestock against diseases and it is not difficult to imagine the consequences if there aren’t any vultures to clean the decaying carcasses. One of the most emblematic examples for the consequences of the lack of vultures is in India. The excessive use of the drug Diclofenac leads to a drastic drop in the vulture populations. That in turn leads to an increase of some scavenging mammal species, which have a similar function (stray dogs, jackals, rats). Following is the reappearance of some long forgotten diseases and high number of rabies in people. Even in our modern world the vultures still have their role. Only last year there was an epidemic of bluetongue in the sheep in Bulgaria, and in some places pasteurellosis in the cattle. The only incinerator in Shumen wasn’t enough to cover the territory of the whole country and the people couldn’t manage to bury enough sheep every day. Consequently carcasses piled up in the coulees, ditches and rivers. The vultures disposed of a sheep carcass in only half an hour.

The four European vulture species (Griffon, Black, Egyptian and Bearded) rarely compete, but rather complete each other in their demands for food so they can consume the carcasses entirely. Upon finding a “meal” vultures would soar around it, signaling its “colleagues”, instead of hiding and saving the carrion for itself. A single vulture can’t eat an entire cattle carcass alone, but forty or fifty birds can. The griffon vultures usually open the body and feed on viscera with the help of their long necks. Using their massive beaks, the black vultures eat the muscles, sinew and skin. The Egyptian vulture takes care of the remains with its long thin beak. Lastly the bearded vulture swallows the bones (if a bone is too large to swallow the bird would drop it on a cliff to shatter it). There is nothing left of the carcass.

Unlike the land predators and scavengers who carry the meat around and could potentially spread diseases, the aerial scavengers could rarely carry a disease from a mammal. When they finish feeding they fly away to the high cliffs and have no direct contact with other mammals. The acidity of their gastric juice is exceptionally high and practically kills every pathogen that gets into their digestive tract. The vultures also use the UV radiation to kill any remaining pathogens on their plumage as they mainly use passive flight with wings widely spread. They may not be clean, but they have their own mechanisms for preventing the spread of the diseases they have direct contact with through their food.

Natural Sanitarians – this is the vultures’ primordial role and they are carrying it out unquestioningly, even if that would cost them their lives. It is a well-known fact that the biggest threat for the vultures is the illegal use of poisons. Usually these poisons are intended for large land predators and pest, but the aerial scavengers are often the first to find the deadly baits.

Sadly this is how people are expressing their gratitude to the “sacred” army of sanitarians, the birds that bring the spring in Greece and Albania, the birds of the Pharaohs and the mediators between God and men in Africa – with poisons, with shooting, with violation of the nests, with destruction of the habitats. Now, on the brink of their extinction, it is our turn to help them!

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