Not only was I incredibly honoured to work on a vulture conservation project, but I would be doing so during International Vulture Awareness Day (IVAD), my favourite day of the year – besides my birthday! This fabulous day falls on the first Saturday of September and on that day I morph into a full-blown vulture geek. It is the only time when it isn’t considered weird for me to randomly mention vultures and I can get away with dropping vultures into completely unrelated conversations with absolutely everybody. Having worked in a zoo has helped in my case, despite the animal collection not actually including vultures. However, it is an absolute dream to be actively working to understand these birds and draw attention to their plight.
When most people think of vultures the image of scary-looking birds with blood-covered heads fighting over a foetid corpse is usually what springs to mind. Based on this perception vultures cannot by any means be considered cute fuzzy animals, unless you’re me of course – although my perspective is apparently at odds with that of most people. But what is still not widely known is that, ecologically, they are one of the most important animals on the planet and with that in mind I think we can forgive a few bad table manners.
So why exactly are vultures so important? Besides being the ‘binmen of the bush’ by removing carcasses, they are also able to eliminate pathogens from the environment. The strength of the acid in these birds’ stomachs is strong enough to destroy micro-organisms that cause diseases such as anthrax, botulism and cholera. If that doesn’t impress you, then I’ve no idea what will. The most dramatic example of the importance of vultures occurred in Asia in the 1990’s following their rapid decline due to a veterinary drug called diclofenac. This drug was administered to livestock for pain relief and after the animals died their carcasses were put out for the scavengers to eat; many were consumed by vultures. After the vultures started dying in droves (somewhere between 97 and 99% of populations) it was found that the drug persisted within the tissue and caused fatal kidney failure in the vultures. As the birds’ numbers plummeted the population of feral dogs exploded to fill the niche left by the vultures. The rise in the number of dogs led to an increase in the incidence of rabies which resulted in an estimated cost of £26 billion for the treatment of bites and loss of earnings in a ten year period. Happily, since the use of this drug in cattle was banned in 2006, vulture numbers have begun to climb once more and the ecosystem is coming back into balance. But there is still a long way to go.
Unfortunately, African vultures are currently undergoing their own dramatic population crash and many species have had their conservation status recently upgraded from ‘endangered’ to ‘critically endangered’. This is one step away from being declared extinct in the wild. However, the reasons for their decline are different to those in Asia.
To promote vulture conservation on IVAD Lindy and I headed off to Johannesburg to give an education and awareness talk about them for the Endangered Wildlife Trust. Lindy’s presentation was well received and highlighted how fabulous hooded vultures are, but also how collisions with powerlines and wind turbines, the traditional medicine trade and the poisoning of carcasses (either intentionally by poachers or unintentionally by farmers targeting pest species) were decimating vulture numbers continent-wide. It was wonderful to see so much interest, and at the end there were so many questions that we both had to field them. The level of interest was such that Lindy and I arrived late for the dinner afterwards missing an entire course, but, as much as I love food, I didn’t mind in the slightest.
Vultures are a classic example of the ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ idiom, with their image as scavengers having connotations of death and decay. Contrary to this widely-held perception they are not dirty birds, indeed, they are quite fastidious, and they are very attentive parents; they can be cute and they are far more important than the majority of people realise. It would be an absolute catastrophe for the planet if we lost these birds, so next time you see them kettleing (soaring on a thermal) in the sky or pass them in a zoo just take a minute to appreciate their awesomeness.