Threatened African vultures may be ugly, but we need them

Although few people would list the vulture among their favorite animals, conservationists say the species is vital to the African ecosystem and we should do everything possible to prevent their extinction. 

Denis Farrell/AP/File
A Cape vulture (r.) and a pied crow (l.) await to feed on a carcass of a pig at a 'vulture restaurant' at Mogale's Gate Reserve near Krugersdorp, South Africa, June 22, 2011. Conservation group BirdLife International said Thursday that the Cape vulture was vulnerable and is now considered as endangered, with four other vulture species now being listed as critically endangered, and put on an international 'red list' of species under threat.

When considering threatened African wildlife, charismatic species such as the rhino, lion, or elephant get a lot of global attention. But BirdLife International, an organization that connects bird conservationists worldwide, says African vultures deserve some of the spotlight too.

BirdLife suggests poachers are deliberately targeting African vultures because the birds circle dead animals and often alert authorities to wild animals that were killed illegally. Their decline is also likely caused by habitat loss, feeding on poisoned livestock, and being hunted by locals for their use in traditional medicine.

Although most people lack much compassion for the vulture, conservationists say it will be bad news for everyone if the vultures disappear. Not only will the African landscape be riddled with decaying carcasses, but the populations of other, peskier scavengers such as rats and jackals could increase. 

“Vultures are important. They come in, they clean up and they leave,” Ross Wanless of BirdLife South Africa told the Guardian. “Other scavengers like rats and jackals will eat a carcass and then will go after livestock or become a pest to humans. And if vultures are removed, their numbers can increase.”

By removing carcasses from the landscape that other species normally would avoid, African vultures act as “a biological recycling team” preventing the spread of diseases between animals and humans. Unfortunately, vultures “are saddled with cultural perceptions relating to death, decay, and maliciousness,” says BirdLife International.

Just in the last 30 years, the number of vultures in West Africa has declined by 95 percent outside of protected areas and only about 100 breeding pairs of bearded vultures are left in South Africa, reports BirdLife.

But conservationists say the African vulture is not doomed. As The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2004, the Asian vulture once faced a 92 to 99 percent population decline because of a prevalent veterinary drug. Countries such as Bangladesh, India and Nepal gathered to discuss the plight of the Asian vulture in 2012, and the population has witnessed a gradual rebound.

“Your support for these unsung heroes is vital,” said Roger Safford, BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Program Coordinator. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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