The Importance of Vultures in NatureMay 31, 2020
While nature’s clean-up crew might not be the prettiest lot, they play a critical part in keeping the ecosystem free of disease.
The importance of vultures has often been lost to their vilification in popular culture and their unfortunate place on Africa’s Ugly 5 list. In nature, however, looks don’t matter as much as the role you have to play in maintaining a healthy environment. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, “vultures clear up to 70% of Africa’s carrion”!
Vultures will clean an animal carcass in roughly one hour. Without them, it can take up to several days for other, smaller scavengers to arrive and clean the dead body. This is far too long for the carcass and surrounding area to remain ‘sanitary’, and the impacts of the rotting body are far-reaching.
What would happen if vultures became extinct?
According to National Geographic, these endangered scavengers are crucial because “without vultures, reeking carcasses would likely linger longer, insect populations would boom, and diseases would spread – to people, livestock, and other wild animals”.
With their ability to quickly devour large amounts of flesh and stomach acids that neutralize pathogens, vultures are the ultimate keepers of balance in an ecosystem. In fact, research indicates that they may help to limit the spread of bacteria and diseases such as anthrax, rabies and cholera.
Unfortunately, the populations of over half of Africa’s vulture species are under serious threat, with extinction looming around the corner for these unsung heroes of the African bush.
Why have vultures species become endangered?
Africa is the home of 11 vulture species, of which seven are currently considered critically endangered or endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The endangered vulture species are the Egyptian, lappet-faced and Cape. Those species listed as critically endangered are the hooded, Rüppell’s, white-backed and white-bearded.
Vultures face threats on several fronts, all of which have contributed to their species populations decreasing across the continent. One of the major causes is poisoning. Poachers who hunt elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns, fear the birds soaring in the sky above the kill will draw unwanted attention to their crime.
Farmers that live within close proximity to wildlife and who lose cattle to predators will lace the animal carcasses with toxic pesticides. This retaliation can kill both the predator and the flock of vultures that come to feed.
A different kind of threat, but one that is also destroying vulture populations, is their use in traditional medicine. Different body parts of the vulture are believed to heal ailments and give supernatural powers, like clairvoyance.
But apart from the importance of vultures, these birds are incredibly fascinating for other reasons!
What else makes vultures fascinating?
A common characteristic among vultures, and possibly one of the reasons people aren’t fond of them, is the visible lack feathers on their head and neck. This is a perfect adaptation for their own health and hygiene. No feathers mean they keep clean while feeding on carcasses because sticking their heads inside the dead body of an animal is messy business.
The endangered lappet-faced vulture is the largest of Africa’s vulture species and makes for quite an imposing sighting while on safari. This magnificent bird has a wingspan reaching almost three metres, can weigh up to 10 kilograms and stands about one metre tall.
The palmnut vulture seems to be somewhat of an anomaly in the vulture family. As its name suggests, the fruits and oil of raffia palm make up over 50% of this bird’s diet, so it is not a scavenger like its fellow vultures.
Bearded vultures are the only vulture species that feed predominantly on bone and bone marrow, rather than meat They crack the bones open by dropping them on stones mid-flight. With a highly acidic stomach composition, these vultures are able to completely digest the bones.
So next time you see a vulture on your African wildlife safari, whisper a little ‘thank you’ to them for keeping the environment clean, healthy and disease-free.
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