Sometimes, we all feel like we need a little extra luck. Things can seem a little out of order and that four leaved clover seems very elusive indeed. Ok, so no clover? What about nailing a horseshoe above your door? Or finding a wishbone? All of these are ingrained in our superstitions, but what if I told you there is another way to catch some luck, if you believe in all of this of course? What is it? Well, smoke some dried vulture brains!
Wait, what?! No, this isn’t some self-help guru, how to make yourself some luck book (or article), this is actually a big problem. A big problem, because the idea of smoking, or snorting, vulture brains for luck, is, in fact, in Western and Central Africa, a common thing. When our World’s vultures are sitting on the brink of that extinction black hole, practices such as this, threaten them more than we could imagine.
Illegal or not, bushmeat is a thriving trade in Africa. All kinds of wild animals are hunted and sold for their meat and body parts, which can then be eaten and used in tradition medicines. Though this problem actually extends further than the borders of African countries, with large African populations in Europe and America, demanding these ‘commodities.’ Vultures are finding themselves more and more popular among these markets. Indeed, research across Central Africa found that over a period of 23 years, 2646 vulture carcasses were present at bushmeat markets, with a large proportions of these carcasses belonging to ‘vulnerable’ or ‘endangered’ species. In addition, superstition is prevalent in many countries in Africa and due to the very nature of the vulture, it is believed that they are ‘clairvoyants’, as they appear just as death occurs. So, by consuming the eyes, tongue and brains of these species, people can gain such gifts. It is also believed that a vulture head can warn off evil spirits and many place them in their houses and by their front doors to protect their family.
But this is only one problem. Another relates to poaching activities and the vulture. We all know what a vulture feeds on, in fact, they are rather famous for it, often portrayed as the evil and sinister creatures that fly silently over a doomed individual, waiting for its demise. When it comes to poaching, this is a problem. Putting it simply, poachers kill an animal and the vultures, inevitably, follow. In the mind of a poacher, the vulture is an irritant and also rather dangerous. For a circling vulture, to many, signals a death and therefore, perhaps the presence of poachers. So, vultures are shot by poachers to keep them from signalling to the authorities that they are there.
Although in some countries you can face jail for killing a vulture, in countries such as Benin where the aforementioned superstitions are believed, the trade in vultures is there for all eyes to see. Vultures are shot yes, but they are also poisoned. Carcasses are laced with poison and often, several vultures can be found dead around one carcass. Though, not all people welcome this practice. Some communities keep poachers away from their villages, worried that they will poison water supplies and subsequently kill children and adults.
All of this is causing a catastrophic decline in vulture numbers. The even more concerning fact though, is that it is not just one species that is suffering, it is an entire group. A functional group that plays a vital part in the ecosystem and a part that cannot be replaced by any other creature. Vultures are ‘cleaners of the dead.’ They remove rotting and often diseased carcasses from the ecosystem because, quite simply, they can stomach it, with oesophagus’ and stomachs of steel. The stomachs of vultures are laced with the very strongest acids, measuring 1-2 on the pH scale (4-5 in humans) and such acids are more corrosive than acid rain! With such a corrosive agent in their stomachs, bacteria from rotting meat has no time to multiply and the vulture survives. In fact, this acid is so strong, that if you scare a vulture (don’t), their defence is to vomit. Unpleasant I know, but this vomit is so foul in smell that it drives away any predator, and the acid within it is so strong, it can burn away flesh. They are the only known species that can survive Anthrax, and probably view it as something rather trivial.
Basically, no other species can do what the vulture does. Despite the myths and the superstitions, vultures are such a vital species, and without them, many ecosystems will find themselves at the mercy of all kinds of disease. But don’t despair just yet, help is on the way for our vultures. Charities and conservation organisations are all to aware of how close we are coming to losing these species and they are taking action. It will most likely be a long and exhausting road to recovery, but in the end, it will all be worth it.
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