(BIRDS/VULTURES) Often ridiculed for being ugly and smelly, vultures undoubtedly get a bad rap.

Eagles get the glory of being national emblems and symbols of war, and doves are admired for their beauty and symbolize peace. Meanwhile, vultures—like garbage men—play a very important role in nature and human society.

Vulture close-up, predatory bird
Approximately 40 million vultures of different species died throughout India in the past 20 years or so. Photo Credit: BBC

In BBC World’s Power of Nature, a 10-part series of individual four-minute films, the vulture’s vital role and their value to human health, as seen in India, is brought into focus.

Because vultures feed on dead animal carcasses, this helps prevent the spread of disease. However, widespread use of a drug used to treat livestock has poisoned much of the vulture population throughout India.

“We think we’ve lost somewhere around 40 million birds in the space of two decades, it’s probably the biggest population crash that has ever happened,” Jemima Parry-Jones, director of the International Centre for Birds of Prey said.

Photo Credit: Johan Swanepoel
India discovered the importance of the vulture the hard way. Photo Credit: Johan Swanepoel

Due to this sharp decline, animal carcasses typically consumed by vultures, fomented disease and attracted feral dogs, bringing a rise in rabies.

Today, India has the highest rate of rabies in the world, with billions of dollars incurred in health and clean-up costs.

Livestock are now being treated with a drug that will not harm vultures, in hopes that the population will recover.

“People tend to think they’re ugly, dirty and smelly, and they’re far from it and they’re absolutely crucial to the environment. They’re the only dustmen in the world who’ve never gone on strike,” Parry-Jones continued.

So vultures, like garbage men, may be a bit smelly, but play a very important role in the environment and society.

For more information, watch the BBC video at the following link: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140210-vultures-halting-killer-diseases