What Are Vultures?
A vulture is a bird of prey that scavenges for its food, meaning that it searches the ground for animal carcasses to eat. Typically, these carcasses are what is left uneaten from other predators. This bird species is divided into two distinct groups: New World vultures and Old World vultures. New World vultures are native throughout North and South America while Old World vultures can be found in Asia, Europe, and Africa. Despite their differences in origin, most vultures share a similar appearance. Vulture heads are typically bald or covered in much shorter feathers than those found on the body. Additionally, vultures have a large, hooked beak, which makes tearing and eating flesh easier.
Cultural Significance of Vultures
In many cultures around the world, particularly in Western societies, vultures are viewed with disdain. Commonly, people tend to look down on these birds as dirty, ugly, and unhygienic, failing to recognize their importance. People of other cultures, however, hold the vulture in high regard. This is true with the inhabitants of the Tibetan plateau, where vultures are part of traditional funerary customs. In this culture, people are not buried after death as a means of controlling preventable infectious diseases. Instead, the dead are laid to rest in the sky. Monks prepare the bodies of the deceased and set them on platforms to draw the attention of nearby vultures. The vultures discover these human bodies, ingesting them and carrying them off into the sky. Many people view this as one final good deed as the deceased is able to offer something to another living creature before going off to rest in the sky. This practice is not unique to Tibet, however. Historical evidence suggests it has been practiced by cultures around the world for over 11,000 years.
Role of Vultures in the Ecosystem
Vultures are often overlooked as lowly scavengers. However, they are a key component to maintaining healthy ecosystems. Because of their role as nature’s garbage disposers, vultures are able to keep the environment clean and free of contagious diseases. These birds have an extremely corrosive stomach acid that allows them to consume rotting animal corpses. These scavenged leftovers are often infected with anthrax, botulinum toxins, rabies, and hog cholera that would otherwise kill other scavengers. By ridding the ground of dead animals, vultures prevent diseases from spreading to humans and animals.
Vultures and Poaching
Because vultures are attracted to carrion (dead animals), they have played an indirect role in helping authorities identify illegal poaching activity. This is particularly true of elephant and rhinoceros poachers, who leave the animals’ bodies after removing their tusks and horns. Vultures are attracted to the remains and fly in circles around the ground where it has been left behind. Authorities are able to track recent instances of illegal hunting by following these scavenger birds and taking note of where they are circling.
Because vultures attract attention to illegal poaching activities, they have become the number one enemy of poachers. A common practice of many poachers is to poison the carcasses left behind after removing tusks and horns from elephants and rhinos. The poachers do this to kill off the vultures so that they can continue their illegal work undetected. One example of this occurred in Namibia in July of 2013, when over 500 scavenger birds (including vultures) were poisoned from a single elephant carcass. It is important to remember that in addition to these direct deaths, many others were killed indirectly. This is because many of these birds quite likely left behind offspring which were relying on their parents to bring food back to the nest. Experts claim that this poisoning case is one of the worst in the history of Southern Africa.
Vultures are also indirectly poisoned by local farmers and hunters. In African countries, for example, farmers often leave poisoned meat or carcasses on their farmlands. They do this to distract predatory animals, like lions and cheetahs, from killing villagers and their livestock, like cows and goats. Unfortunately, vultures are also attracted to this poisoned carrion and many have died as a result of ingesting the poison. Something similar happens in the United States, where many hunters use lead ammunition to kill target specie, like coyotes. Once shot, the animals typically run off into the wilderness and die. Vultures then find these animals and set about consuming them. These birds end up eating some of the lead ammunition as well and are slowly poisoned. California condors are most likely to suffer this unfortunate fate.
Effect of Smaller Vulture Populations
As a result of direct and indirect killing, many vulture species are now endangered. Of the 23 vulture species (16 Old World and 7 New World) 16 are considered vulnerable, threatened, or endangered. The population of several of these species has declined by over 90% in some areas of the world. When vultures are unable to clean up the carrion in an area, other scavenger animals increase in population. The scavengers that tend to move in where vulture populations are low include: feral dogs, rats, and blowfly larvae. While these animals do help to remove carcasses from the landscape, they are also more likely to spread disease to human populations and other animals as well. In India, for example, the feral dog population increased significantly after vultures consumed cow carcasses poisoned with diclofenac, a painkiller. These feral dogs carried rabies and went on to infect other dogs and local people. Between 1993 and 2006, the government of India spent an additional $34 billion to fight the spread of rabies. India continues to have the highest rate of rabies in the world.
What Can Be Done to Save Vultures?
In order to save the vulture species from extinction and protect the complex ecosystems from becoming overrun with carrion and disease, the current number of vulture deaths must be reduced. Around the world, but mainly focused in Asia and Africa, nonprofit organizations are working with local governments to implement conservation plans. These plans typically include public educational campaigns in order to target local populations, farmers and poachers. Because vultures are also used for traditional medicine in some places, these organizations and governments are working to create regulations that control the killing and selling of vultures. Additionally, many organizations are dedicated to increasing research of vultures and their roles in the ecosystem.
It is important to remember that even though the vulture species lacks the cute cuddly appearance of some endangered species, it is still a critical piece to a much larger, complex ecosystem. The world needs vultures to help control the spread of disease.