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Vultures Are Worth Saving

Vultures Are Worth Saving

Vultures have had some bad PR. Granted, they are perhaps not the most attractive birds to look at, but they have been much misunderstood and unfairly prosecuted. Many people consider them ugly, dirty and disease-riddled pests that the world would be better off without. In many parts of the world — vultures occur on all continents except Antarctica and Australia — they are under threat, making conservation efforts crucial.

Social animals

Vultures fulfil a crucially important role in the natural environment — one that they are uniquely adapted to, contributing “services” that few other species can provide. “They may look mean,” says Kerri Wolter, manager of the Vulture Programme of a South African non-profit organization called Rhino & Lion Wildlife Conservation, “but they are gentle and intelligent birds.” Vultures are very sociable creatures that live in colonies ranging in size from a few to several hundred individuals. They form lifelong breeding pairs that share incubation, feeding and chick-care responsibilities.

Cape Vultures

Wolter and the Vulture Programme’s work is particularly focused on saving the Cape Vulture, Africa’s largest vulture species. Confined to Southern Africa, they are endangered in Swaziland, critically endangered in Namibia and extinct as a breeding species in Zimbabwe. Only about 2,900 breeding pairs remain in the wild, mostly in South Africa, Lesotho and Botswana, and unless conservation efforts are successful, they may be facing population collapse and eventual extinction.

Watch vulture expert Kerri Wolter fly with vultures in this beautiful short film:

Important role

Vultures occupy the very top echelon of the food chain and are a crucial indicator species of overall environmental health. If vultures aren’t doing well, something in the whole ecosystem is out of kilter.

By quickly consuming the remains of any dead animal, they help to control vermin and decrease the spread of some diseases, including botulism and anthrax, which could otherwise infect livestock. Vultures also alert farmers to the presence of dead livestock on their land and they do the job of safely disposing of these carcasses for free.

Threats

There are a number of reasons why Cape Vultures and vultures in general are increasingly threatened in the wild. Some of them, like the fact that they need seven years to reach sexual maturity and only produce a single egg per year, are natural, but most are caused by humans:

• Inadvertent or deliberate poisoning. Chemical residues in the carcasses of domestic livestock may be poisonous to vultures. In South Asia, for instance, the presence of traces of the veterinary anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac in diseased cattle has been responsible for a catastrophic decline in vulture populations. Residues of pesticides like organophosphates can have similar effects. Some farmers put out poison-laced carcasses to kill predators like jackals, which also end up killing vultures.

• Injuries and fatalities from electrocution or mid-air collisions with electricity pylons and power lines.

• Poaching for so-called traditional medicines. Dried vulture brains smoked in cigarettes are supposed to offer visions of the future and are used to help with gambling and business decisions. It has been estimated that some 300 vultures are killed in South Africa for this purpose every year.

• Decreased availability of safe food. Most vultures are reliant on carrion and are unable to kill prey.

• Disturbance of breeding sites and colonies.

• Loss and transformation of habitat due to changes in land use.

Conservation efforts

Enthusiastic vulture conservationists like Wolter and her organization are doing some amazing work to help ensure the survival of the Cape Vulture and other vulture species that deserve our active support, including:

• Establishing so-called vulture restaurants, where safe food is supplied regularly.

• Using cell phone-based tracking devices and tags to research behavior and map home ranges.

• Providing community awareness and education.

• Rehabilitating sick, injured and poisoned birds back into the wild.

• Evaluating the impact various veterinary drugs and agricultural chemicals have on vultures.

• Setting up captive breeding programmes.

• Lobbying authorities regarding the fate of vulture populations.

—-
Andreas is a book shop manager and freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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148 comments

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9:55AM PST on Feb 2, 2014

I have two questions to put to people who think they don't like vultures.

First, if you were abroad and saw a gigantic bird soaring overhead, could you tell if it was a vulture or an eagle? (I can, but then I'm a birder with the appropriate bird book.;-)

Second. You know what vultures do? Would you really like it if they didn't perform this clean-up service? So you can work out what benefits they bring to human and animal health in the area. Why dislike them for doing it?

9:49AM PST on Feb 2, 2014

This article is old, but I came across the plight of the vulture through a BBC film the other night, and put the story on the News Network 'Seven Surprising Facts about Vultures'.

I spent a lot of time on the Indian Subcontinent and saw all eight species of vulture. One of them, the majestic Lammergeier, (a vulture with a feathered head) became my favourite bird of prey, while others, like the Whitebacked Vulture, seemed to be everywhere. I'm horrified to discover how rare they have become!

1:44AM PDT on Sep 11, 2011

Further to my comments below, I have to add I should have said "ASIDE, I really love these birds".
Thought I should clarify this since receiving a very nasty email from someone. My fondness for these scavenging birds was in no way a reference to the Parsis culture. Incidentally, whoever sent the email, I have been to India 5 times so no need to prattle on about space etc.

2:51PM PDT on Jul 24, 2011

To be entirely honest, vultures when seen up close give me a slight case of the willies. That being said, our responsibility as human beings is to protect all creatures, not just the cute or photogenic ones. Vultures are such an integral part of the ecosystem; don't underestimate their inherent worth as a species.

2:12PM PDT on Jul 24, 2011

i think they're beautiful birds :D with their glossy black coats, and to me they are a perfect example of evolutionary design, they're just great in every way, the way they glide through the sky, the enormously important service they provide the world! imagine those rotting zebra corpses, in the hot african sun for hours..... without these birds, er, ew. and i think people distance themselves from this species, when in some respects we're quite similar, are we not all scavengers, after all?

thanks vultures :D

9:27AM PDT on Jun 29, 2011

What a vital role these creatures play in the enviorment. They may not be the prettiest things to look at but cute in their own way.

6:10AM PDT on Jun 21, 2011

Vultures are worth saving. They are an important part of our environment because they clean up the carcasses of dead animals.

5:49AM PDT on Jun 17, 2011

The Parsis in India don't bury their dead (that would pollute the earth)(nor cremate) but instead, the dead body is placed on a platform in the Towers of Silence where the vultures clean away the body. I really like these birds!

1:04AM PDT on Jun 17, 2011

Work with a wildlife rehabilation center. I had the pleasure of working with a couple of turkey vultures recently. They are sweet birds. one had suffered from lead poisoning and the other from head trauma. They both survived and were set free. They are the perfect waste management for the environment. They must be saved!

10:24AM PDT on Jun 15, 2011

Vultures are magnificent birds, they are misunderstood. Vultures recycle waste & prevent the spread of ANTHRAX by foraging!

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