By Andrea Spath
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. We are also losing these wonderful birds to loss and transformation of habitat due to changes in land use.
Andreas is a book shop manager and freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath