It Seems The Vultures Have Stopped Circling

Vultures. Our minds fill with images of the African savannah and dry dusty earth devoid of any water. Skulls, bones and carcasses of animals littered on a baron wasteland. Dark silhouette’s sit slumped on the ground and circle the skies, their shadows falling on the ground below. For me, the word conjures images of the two vultures from Snow White and the vultures from Ice Age 2. Snow White Vultures

You have to agree they are pretty fabulous! Disney did a wonderful job in making them creepy, clever and conniving. Despite this, I always loved them in the film (especially since they turned against the evil queen). As we all know there is one fact about the vulture that makes him perfect for use as a villain or symbol of evil. They feed on decomposing flesh and carcasses. Yum. This, along with another factor may be the reason why they are not top of the conservation list. The other? Well, if we’re brutally honest, they’re not the most attractive of species (though no less important/magnificent!) There! I said it and I can’t take it back. When I say ‘not the most attractive’ of course I mean compared to the panda, or the red squirrel, both of which along with many others, we humans are drawn to because of their ‘cute’ appearance. That may sound daft, but it’s true. Countless times I have heard and read stories on those species, but not the vulture. Fair? I’d say not.

So what’s the problem? How could an animal that eats dead things need help? Well, in total there are eleven vulture species known in Africa and six of those are thought to be at threat from extinction. Acceptable? Absolutely not! What’s the cause? I’ll give you three guesses (though I’m sure you don’t need three). Humans, both directly and indirectly. Poisoning of large game animals such as elephants by poachers have claimed not only the lives of these animals but also the lives of the scavengers who have fed on the rotting meat.

And with such meat as their main food source, this is causing massive population losses. In addition, body parts of vulture species are extremely popular in traditional medicines used across western and southern Africa. And the final factor? They’re a nuisance. We all know the trade for ivory is big business and the dead carcasses of elephants and rhinos attracts vultures. Unfortunately for the vulture, they are now used as a warning sign to the authorities of poachers. Therefore, they are being targeted by poachers.

But this is affecting the ecosystem. We may cringe away in disgust at the thought of their diets, but it is this very aspect of their lifestyle that benefits so many. Think of a rotting carcass. What words do you think of? Stinky? Putrid? Infested? Diseased? Exactly. By cleaning up carcasses, rotting and potentially diseased flesh is removed from the ecosystem and this reduces the spread of disease. In fact, the digestive tracts of vultures are so acidic that they destroy spores of the anthrax virus! Again, reducing spread of the disease.

Furthermore, as one of the dominant scavengers, without them, numbers of other species of scavengers such as rats and jackals could also increase. So? Well, unlike jackals and rats, vultures eat a carcass and then leave in search of the next. Rats and jackals stick about, becoming a threat to humans and their livestock.

Gaensegeier, (Gyps fulvus), Griffon Vulture

Gaensegeier, (Gyps fulvus), Griffon Vulture

So who needs help? BirdLife International has named the species as the hooded vulture, white-backed vulture, white headed vulture, Ruppell’s vulture, Cape vulture and lappet-faced vulture.

What can we do to help? Spread the word! We see pandas, squirrels, snow leopards, tigers and dolphins on our front pages along with countless others. Let’s make a little room for our vultures.



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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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