Salvaging Our Scavengers: How Vulture Decline Affects All of Us

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Vultures have a bad reputation. As scavengers who live on carrion, their name serves as a metaphor for a person who preys on the weak. They are also not the prettiest birds in the sky. Maybe these factors explain why scientists have only recently realized that the vulture population in Africa has dropped by more than 80 percent over the last three years. The loss of the vulture could have far-reaching ecological consequences, and it should be taken very seriously.

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Poisoning and neglect have decimated the vulture population in Africa. Six or seven out of the eight species of African vultures now qualify as threatened or critically endangered. Vultures die when they inadvertently ingest poison that farmers have placed into carcasses in an attempt to drive hyenas or lions away from their properties. Some poachers also employ poison in a deliberate attempt to kill vultures, since they do not want park rangers to spot the birds circling over the carcasses of illegally killed prey.

Scavenging by vultures is critical for the maintenance of African ecosystems. By eating meat from the carcasses of dead animals, vultures help keep down the population of feral dogs and jackals, in turn decreasing the incidence of rabies and other transmittable diseases on the continent. They also dispose of up to 22 percent of the organic waste in any given area.

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Typical measures designed to protect endangered species may not work effectively with vultures, since the birds are mobile and easily able to leave any protected zone. The Peregrine Fund, which backed the study that quantified the loss of the vultures, proposes strong regulation of pesticides and other poisons that are killing vultures. These regulations would affect not only the sale but also the importation of pesticides.

Urgent steps are needed to protect the vulture population of Africa and save it from extinction. In addition to regulating poisons, other proposed measures include eliminating the trade of vulture parts as medicine and working to minimize deaths to vultures caused by wind turbines. Ultimately, the natural balance of the ecosystem depends upon our ability to protect these amazing creatures.

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