While vultures usually provoke negative connotations such as ‘gory’ and ‘vile’ (even Darwin called them “disgusting”), they pay a vital role in maintaining balance in the ecosystem. They perform the rapid cleanup, and recycling, of dead animals. The only land-based animal that can thrive solely on scavenging the diseased, vultures can quickly devour flesh, and their stomach acids neutralize pathogens, helping to limit the spread of bacteria and diseases such as anthrax and rabies. Their hooked bills are ideal for tearing flesh and powerful yet flexible necks allow them to pierce the toughest of carcasses. Unfortunately, their numbers have been plummeting worldwide, with twelve endangered species and four on the brink. One main reason for this shocking decline is due to another prominent issue, in Kenya especially; poaching. Once an animal is killed by a poacher, vultures circle overhead looking for a meal, and giving away the poacher’s location. For this, the poacher sprinkles the kill with Furadan, a fast-acting pesticide that is relatively cheap and available under the table. These poor scavengers are similarly poisoned by the diclofenac in dead cows from farmers in India, leading to a 96% drop in just a single decade.
Why should we care about the unattractive vulture’s decline? We must remember that all of the animals within an ecosystem contribute to the balance, and therefore success. The vulture is no exception. Just in the India die-off alone, dead cattle began piling up, hence increasing the dog population who no longer had a competitor. Rat populations soared. Deaths from rabies increased by nearly 50,000. The same type of imbalance and spread of disease will be seen in all areas where the vulture population continues to decline. Sadly, the poisons used on the vultures is still very easily attainable. “You cannot have agriculture in the tropics without pesticides, “Charles Musyoki, former head of species management for the Kenya Wildlife Service, says. “ We need to educate the public about their correct and safe use.” In closing, we must prevent the extinction of these vultures to avoid and ecological and economic catastrophe.
Pictures from National Geographic