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Why we need vultures
Darcy Ogada — in East Africa Project    Share

Let’s face it, most people are not smitten by vultures.In fact people often describe them as disgusting birds.

Ruppell's vulture Photo by: Tui de Roy

Despite what your opinion of these birds may be, they are very important scavengers. Just how important?Well consider this, research just completed at Mpala Research Centre, central Kenya has shown that carcasses decompose almost twice as fast when vultures forage at carcasses as opposed to carcasses where vultures are not present.If vultures were to go extinct, carcasses may persist longer in the environment and this could have a number of consequences for the health of wildlife, livestock and humans.

Ruppell's and White-backed vultures scavenging an elephant carcass. Photo by: Tui de Roy

However, there a number of mammalian scavengers who can and do play a similar role to vultures by rapidly consuming carcasses.In Kenya these scavengers include spotted and striped hyenas, jackals and even domestic dogs.What we have seen at carcasses without vultures suggests these scavengers cannot locate carcasses as quickly as vultures can, but they do consume carcasses rapidly once they find them.

Spotted hyenas eating a dead elephant. Photo by:Darcy Ogada

So what then is the problem if vultures go extinct? There are other scavengers who consume carcasses.Yes, but at these carcasses the number of mammalian scavengers was more than 7-fold higher and the time they spent at carcasses was nearly 5x’s greater than at carcasses without vultures.The significance of this lies in the fact that all of these species of mammalian scavengers are well-known reservoirs for a host of carnivore diseases.

Our research showed that the number of physical contacts between mammalian scavengers was 50-fold greater at carcasses without vultures.We used physical contacts between scavengers as a surrogate for disease transmission because close contact between individuals is a likely source of disease transmission for a number of carnivore diseases, including rabies and canine distemper.

Striped hyenas eating a carcass. Photo by Darcy Ogada

So based on our research we expect an increase in the spread of carnivore diseases at carcasses as vultures decline or become locally extinct. Any increase of carnivore diseases that also infect humans, such as rabies, could potentially have serious effects on the health of human populations living alongside carnivores.And dogs, which forage on carcasses only to return to co-exist closely with humans, would likely be a key source of transmission to the human population.

White-backed vulture spreading its wings. Photo by Tui de Roy

So vultures are VERY important members of the scavenging community, but they are facing unprecedented declines throughout the world including Africa and Southeast Asia. Even in North America, the California Condor went extinct in the wild before massive conservation efforts resulted in small populations being restored in western states.

Love them or hate them, vultures are uniquely adapted scavengers and their loss would have numerous negative repercussions for other species inhabiting our planet, including us.

Find more articles about California Condor, Rüppell's Vulture, White-backed Vulture, Africa

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