Vultures: Misunderstood Ecosystem Heroes
Vultures in pop-culture
You might remember your first impression of vultures from watching The Jungle Book or Robin Hood as a kid. Those hunchbacked birds, with long beaks and
dark colors, never really had a great reputation in pop culture. In the animal kingdom, vultures are birds of prey that scavenge on carrion (the decaying body of a dead animal). Indeed, the whole ecology surrounding vultures can be quite morbid. They sneak in to eat already dead animals, probably hunted by other predators.
The common picture is the wake of vultures circling in the sky around dead prey, looking for their opportunity to land and “steal” some of what is left. We even have the expression “you are a vulture”, to describe someone who is trying to gain from another person’s misfortune. Therefore, they have often been linked to death and have generally been considered ugly and spooky animals.
The Importance of Vultures
However, the title to this blog post is not given at random. Vultures really are heroes for natural ecosystems. They are considered absolutely necessary for the good recycling functioning of an environment. The carcasses cleanup that they perform so efficiently is pivotal to ensure the health of an environment and the animals living in it. Consuming carrion means freeing the ecosystem from critters and other components that may cause infectious diseases which could spread to other animals and humans.
Vultures can clear up in one hour a carcass that would otherwise take days to completely decay, meanwhile attracting insects and spreading potential pathogens. The reason why vultures are so efficient in their cleaning role is that they are specially equipped with pathogen-neutralizing stomach acids. About 70% of all carrion in Africa is cleared up by vultures (https://www.awf.org/wildlife-conservation/vulture). However, the survival of multiple vulture species worldwide is seriously threatened.
The Conservation Issue
Yes, vultures do not have the best reputation, but this should not threaten their existence on Earth. However, multiple vulture species are now listed as Critically Endangered by the International Unit for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). A serious case of unintentional poisoning regarded certain veterinary products provided to livestock, such as diclofenac (a Non-Steroid Anti-Inflammatory Drug). This compound is toxic to vultures and decimated their numbers in India in less than a decade.
Moreover, vultures might accidentally ingest lead shot pellet or bullet fragments left in hunted prey, leading to lethal cases of lead poisoning. On top of these “new threats”, the centennial custom of traditional medicine keeps threatening these birds. Poaching activities will poison wild animal carcasses, this time intentionally, and kill dozens of vultures at once. Poachers then collect the dead vultures to sell their parts on the traditional medicine market. Their heads in particular, if inhaled, incinerated, or kept under the pillow, are believed to bring foresight and luck (https://www.popsci.com/story/animals/medicine-threatens-african-vultures/).
There are several threats to vulture species worldwide, and many conservation campaigns have now taken action to help their recovery. A world without vultures would put at high risk the health of those ecosystems that they clear up so efficiently, with their sophisticated and highly evolved scavenging adaptations. Vultures can be considered a friend-species for One Health, as they contribute to the health of their environment and of the other animals living in it, including humans.
By Costanza Manes, One Health Research Fellow