Across the globe, vulture populations are in decline, and they are often overlooked by the public as an important species for conservation. Sadly, they don’t have the best reputation, and are commonly associated with death and disaster in folklore and pop culture. On top of this, vultures are considered the most unattractive of feathered friends, earning them a place in an unfortunate grouping called the ‘Ugly Five’. They share the podium with hyaenas, marabou storks, warthogs, and wildebeest.
Of the nine vulture species that glide over our Southern African skies, all are included on the most recent IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and classified as follows: palm-nut vulture – least concern; bearded vulture – near threatened; Egyptian vulture – endangered; Cape vulture – endangered; lappet-faced vulture – endangered; hooded vulture – critically endangered; white-headed vulture – critically endangered; white-backed vulture – critically endangered; and Rüppell’s vulture – critically endangered.
The plummet in vulture numbers is cause for concern for many reasons – namely because they play a vital role in preventing the spread of diseases, such as anthrax, rabies, and tuberculosis. Scavengers, like vultures and hyaenas, are the environment’s waste disposers and recyclers. Vultures are usually the first responders to ‘naturally’-occurring carcasses (resulting from old age, disease, injury, etc.) as they are able to cover long distances in a short space of time and have a vantage from heights hyaenas could only dream of.
To enable flight at such heights, vultures have developed a layer of down feathers that insulates them against the cold, and a great lung system to cope with low-oxygen levels. Their balding heads also allow them to regulate their body temperatures in moves between extreme temeperatures – and are easier to clean after pecking inside a carcass. Interesting tidbit: because vultures’ stomachs are highly acidic, nearly all bacteria and viruses from the carcass are killed during digestion.
Vultures face a number of threats, including poisoning, persecution, habitat loss, and even electrocution from power lines. Their most common cause of death is poisoning. Vultures are killed intentionally and unintentionally when they feed on poisoned carcasses. Poachers may poison a carcass to directly target vultures for use in traditional medicine, or whose presence could otherwise alert authorities to illegally-killed big game. In some instances, farmers also poison carcasses intending to kill predators targeting their livestock, and inadvertently killing vultures that also feed on the bait.
Losing all our vultures to extinction would cause other scavenger populations to surge, which could result in bacteria and viruses from carcasses being brought into human settlements by crows, storks, rats, and dogs. In the wild, the spread of diseases between animals would greatly increase and could also contaminate water sources. Anthrax, tuberculosis, and rabies are only a few of the many diseases that vultures help keep under control.
So the next time you are on safari and see these gangly birds, take a moment to remember and appreciate their important role in all of our lives.
Words by: Tovhi Mudau
Photos by: Kelly Oldaker