Seen as synonymous with death and disease, the highly misunderstood vulture has obtained a poor reputation in many cultures across the globe. Ironically enough, they are one of the most beneficial species for humans and environment in terms of being able to reduce the very things they are known for.
Here are a few facts about why vultures are so important to humans and our livelihoods.
1. Due to highly acidic stomach acids (pH of 0), vultures can safely consume carcasses infected with rabies, hog cholera, botulism, and many other disease that would be lethal to most other scavengers.
2. To elaborate more on number one, vultures are considered ‘dead end’ hosts because the disease does not spread further once consumed by the vulture. So if a vulture eats a diseased animal, the spread of the disease ends there because it will likely be neutralized by the vulture’s body. Ergo, the risk of disease spreading from dead bodies is relatively low with the presence of vultures.
3. With eyesight up to 8 times better than that of humans, vultures rely heavily on their vision to find their meals. Conservationists and scientists are able to use vultures to find poached animals.
4. Some vulture species are the only legitimate scavengers in the African bush and USA. Unlike hyenas and coyotes, for example, vultures NEVER hunt for their own food, but instead feed on predators’ kills or on animals that have died due to injury or illness.
5.A vulture can eat up to 1 kilogram (about 2 pounds) of decaying meat in a single meal.
6. Vultures will often urinate and defecate where they eat. Although this may not seem sanitary, due to the highly acidic nature of their bodily waste, vulture essentially ‘disinfect’ the areas they congregate to eat at . . thus even further preventing the spread of disease.
7. In many countries, people have set up vulture “restaurants,” or feeding sites, where carcasses can be left out for vultures. These restaurants help to ensure that vultures have enough food and also help them avoid contaminated carcasses. In South Africa, tourist companies have taken advantage of such locations to allow their clients to see the vultures feed.
8. Their bald heads are not just a fashion statement. Featherless heads help radiate excess heat away from their bodies and keep rotting flesh from soiling feathers.
Still not convinced vultures are important?
9. The Indian Vulture Crisis:
Between 1992 and 2007, a massive reduction in India’s vulture populations was seen due to veterinarians using the drug diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory used to treat livestock. Indian and Slender-billed Vulture populations decreased by almost 97%; meanwhile, the White-rumped Vulture populations fared even worse with a 99.9% drop in their numbers.
Surveys show that the country’s decline in their ‘natural cleanup crew’ led to an explosion in the population of feral dogs (estimated to be about 18 million today in India), contributing to over 38.5 million additional dog bites These animals, unlike the “dead-end” vultures, are potential vectors for rabies and are linked to the 47,300 extra deaths recorded from the disease. The researchers believe that the increased number of rabies victims may have cost the Indian economy $34 billion.
In addition, the remains of the carcasses that were formerly picked clean by the vultures are also now contaminating water supplies causing further disease issues for the country.