Thousands of government representatives and conservationists are meeting right now in South Africa to discuss how to save elephants, rhinoceroses and other iconic wildlife from vanishing. The gathering, called CITES COP17, focuses on regulating the international trade of endangered species, and you can read all about it in this primer.
These birds win no beauty contests, and they’ve got a dark rap as grimy beacons of death that circle over carcasses and feast on their decaying innards. But many vulture species are now at risk of dying off themselves, and in their flight toward extinction are serving as symbols of the interconnectedness of ecosystems.
That’s because vultures have become collateral damage of the African poaching epidemic, as well as of human conflict with carnivores. In the first major report on threats to African vultures, researchers last year found that populations of seven of the continent’s 11 species had declined by 80 percent or more over three vulture generations.
Vultures’ talent for spotting carcasses has made them targets. Darcy L. Ogada, a wildlife biologist with the Peregrine Fund, wrote in the New York Times in 2014 that the birds can zero in on a freshly-killed elephant within half an hour of its death. Illegal hunters, on the other hand, might need twice that long to sever the ivory tusks they desire. So to keep authorities from using hovering vultures as clues leading to a kill site, the poachers poison the carcass — and that can lead to all-out vulture massacre.
In 2012, authorities found 191 vulture corpses around one dead elephant. BirdLife, which organized the forum in Johannesburg, tweeted Monday that the casualties can be far higher.
It’s not just poaching that causes vulture death. When lions and other predators kill livestock, African farmers sometimes poison their animals’ carcasses in hopes of exacting revenge on the killers. But those dead bodies, usually poisoned with potent and widely available agricultural pesticides, also lure and kill vultures. In some countries, including Nigeria, vultures are also killed for their heads and other body parts that are prized as talismans or for their purported curative powers.
Ogada and other vulture advocates have called for stricter regulation of pesticides and poisons as well as stronger laws and penalties against those who poison the birds or traffic in their parts.
There are good reasons to care about the plight of the vulture, even for those who aren’t particularly moved by the birds themselves. For one thing, vultures’ role as a front-line cleanup crew can prevent the spread of diseases that harm people, such as rabies. When feral dogs get first dibs on rotting carcasses, their populations can explode, and they can spread the disease widely.
For another, the ominous circling they do above corpses makes them key intelligence officers in the efforts to save elephants, rhinos and other illegally killed species.
“Money and expertise to fight the new wave of elephant and rhino poaching has been pledged by Western nations,” Ogada wrote in the New York Times. “But if we don’t also devote effort and money to saving Africa’s vultures, can we really expect that the war on poaching will ever be won?”