Not many people are fond of vultures. The creatures are widely seen as ugly and unhygienic birds with a nasty habit: feeding on decaying animal carcasses. Yet they play an important ecological role.
Decaying carcasses can spread serious diseases like anthrax and rabies to other wild animals in surrounding areas. Vultures, however, can stay healthy after feeding on putrid meat packed with potentially deadly diseases. According to a study published in the journal Genome Biology, the avian scavengers have unique sets of genes that provide them with stomachs full of strong acids and a robust immune system.
Despite how important vultures are to nature, however, many species of the scavengers are on the verge of extinction across Africa. Eight species of vultures in Africa are reported to have plummeted in their numbers over the last three decades.
The main factors behind the decline in vulture populations relate to human activities. In many cases, vultures are collateral victims. Farmers often retaliate against predators such as lions attacking their livestock by poisoning them. Unfortunately, this poison also kill vultures when move in to feed on carcasses.
“Poisoning accounts for over 60 per cent of recorded vulture deaths in Africa. In most cases, this happens when predators kill livestock and herders poison the carcass to kill the predators,” says Paul Gacheru, an expert on the birds.
Vultures are also targeted directly by poachers. The scavengers descend on the carcasses of animals like elephants killed by poachers. This can give away the locations of poaching activities to wildlife authorities. As a result, poachers lace carcasses with poison to kill vultures.
“This threat began in earnest in 2012, and has essentially doubled the number of vultures poisoned in the last three years, with over 2,000 vultures poisoned intentionally by poachers since 2012, that we know of, as surely a substantial number are never detected or reported,” said biologist Darcy Ogada.
Last June, 537 vultures were found dead in Botswana: they had been killed en masse. They were thought to be poisoned by poachers. Among the dead scavengers were white-headed vultures and hooded vultures, both of which are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
“As vultures are late maturing and slow breeders, the magnitude of losing just under 600 vultures in one week is incomprehensible,” said Kerri Wolter, CEO and founder of conservation charity VulPro.
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