Flap! Flap! Flap! The vulture may not be a favorite animal for all. It is often on the list of ugly birds to the people. How do you feel when a giant creature resides in a dead tree with the wingspan flapping? With less powerful feet than those of the giant eagles and the hawks, the vulture is a symbolization of cleanliness and protection. Some of you may get frightened with its sharpened beak hooked at the end and the ravenous claws. Don’t you?  

White-rumped Vulture
White-rumped Vulture | Image Credit – Flickr

Having the heads and necks almost bare and flapping the shaggy feathers has made this creature majestic. One enjoys seeing them gliding in the air for hours, searching for a meal. In terms of cleaning our environment, they are inferred to be significant. Have you ever wondered if this feathery creature is a good friend? Are you aware of how vultures save the planet? Let us move you to the vulture’s exciting journey. 

Who are the vultures?

Egyptian Vulture
Egyptian Vulture | Image Credit – Flickr

Often seen in a collective unit, the vultures are the large carrion-eating birds who reside fundamentally in the tropical and subtropical regions all across the globe. Even Charles Darwin, naturalist and founder of the evolution theory, described the vulture as ‘disgusting.’ 

They are often referred to as Nature’s Clean Up Crews’. Even though they are perceived as the lowly scavengers, no one can deny their scavenging lifestyle. Despite acting as natural carcass recyclers, the vultures have been victims of a bad reputation in our society and nature. Nobody else could clean the regions as the vultures do without any expense. 

As a self-defense mechanism, the turkey vulture may vomit on their attackers and defecate on themselves, intending to keep cooler. Thus, because of the acidic vomiting and their ugly presence, the people’s perception of the vulture is not as perfect as we think. 

Shocking facts about the vulture worldwide

Apart from Antarctica and Australia, you can visualize at least one vulture species throughout the globe. Despite the existing 23 species of the vulture, the majority have reached either the Critically Endangered, Endangered, or the Threatened stage. The carcass bones they feed upon account for 70-90 % of their overall diet. 

The IUCN Red List has categorized the two vulture species, viz. The Egyptian vulture and the Lappet-faced vulture under Endangered. Apart from these, the hooded, white-backed, Ruppell’s, and white-headed vulture are enlisted under the Critically Endangered stage. It indicates how our vultures have been threatened with the Extinction brink. 

It can locate the carcasses from 10 kilometers away and could communicate with the vultures rapidly. In devoid of the vulture, it takes almost three times to decompose the carcasses naturally. The long time remaining of the carcasses in the environment is likely to cause disease outbreaks. 

It is estimated that the massive vulture population expired between 1992 and 2003. In such circumstances, the wild dog population in India increased by a third, reaching the dog population of 30 million. If there were ten dogs for every 100 vultures, the situation would have reversed. Such scary data makes us realize to think once upon the importance of the vulture to our planet.

Causes of vulture declining population by poison

Poison is regarded as one of the significant threats the vultures. Because of the poisons, the vultures across Africa and the southeastern regions have been suffering from unprecedented population declines. The primary poison lies in the carcasses. When the vultures naturally feed upon the carcasses, they become the victim of the poison and eventually may cause death. 

It has resulted in the sharp declination of the vulture population all across the globe. The Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane (DDT) and the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are used often in livestock. When the vultures do scavenge the carcasses, they are the severe victims who get exposed within fractions of a second.

Asian vultures have been suffering from extensive declining populations. The African vultures have been going through the brink of extinction. It is ironic to depict that out of 11 African-Eurasian vulture species worldwide, seven vulture species have been surviving, facing the extinction risk extensively.

In the name of traditional medicine or the charm, the vultures are found to be killed for their valuable parts in the western part of Africa. Recently, the hooded vulture has been categorized as Critically Endangered under the IUCN Red List. 

If such a rate is about to increase, we will be losing all the vulture species from the globe one day. When anthropogenic-induced interventions decline its population, have you ever pondered on who cleans our environment naturally? All the carcasses remaining in the environment will pose a foul odor in its absence, causing disease outbreaks.  

How do vultures save the planet?

The vultures save the environment in several ways, which are mentioned below in brief:

Scavenger

Vulture Scavenging
Vulture Scavenging | Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons

The vulture acts as a scavenger. It relies upon the carcasses of the animals for feeding. When the carcasses are left alone, the bacteria of the carcasses can spread the diseases massively. Acting as scavengers, it eradicates the harmful and poisonous substances from the environment, thereby feeding the dead animals and birds before they decay. It presents disease outbreaks. 

When the vultures feed the carcasses at an immense amount, the area becomes clean and saves the environment. Because of the carcasses remaining in the environment, the vultures can eradicate the foul odor that spreads throughout the whole environment. 

When the vulture visualizes the carcasses from kilometers away, it feeds and consumes the carcasses within a few minutes. While consuming the carcasses, they do not suffer from food poisoning because the acidic stomach acids have a pH of almost zero, which eradicates and controls the diseases from spreading. It never gets sick despite feeding the dead carcasses that remained in an ecosystem for an extended period. 

Despite them preferring the fresh meat, it consumes the rotting carcasses. It ensures the cleaning environment. Because of it, the vultures are primarily inferred as nature’s garbage collectors. Such activities of the vultures do eliminate land pollution. The vulture rarely attacks the other animals. More carcasses are cleared from their regions when they feed the carcasses in large groups.

Recycle nutrients used by the plants

Being a scavenger, the vulture consumes the dead animals and aids in breaking down the complex organic materials into the simpler organic substances. Later on, the decomposers consume these substances, converting them into multiple forms. 

For instance: plants can use carbon and nutrients further. It reflects how significant the future is in cleaning the mother planet. In devoid of the scavengers and the decomposers, our ecosystem could be limited to the dead animals everywhere. Thanks to the scavengers and the decomposers who do convert the complex organic materials to that of the simpler ones.

Prevent water sources contamination              

Principally in the wild, the vultures significantly prevent water resource contamination. Here is why. When they find dead carcasses nearby the watering hole, there is a higher risk of contamination. It could spread the contamination within fractions of a second. 

The vulture is among the ones who could control this mishap. They feed on those carcasses lying near the water. When it cleans the surrounding regions, there is a chance of less disease contamination from the dead carcasses, or there is no risk of the disease spreading. 

Vultures and poaching

Vultures and poaching
Vultures and poaching | Image Credit – Freepik

Among numerous activities of the vulture to save the environment, the one entails the incredible contribution in assisting the authorities in identifying the illegal wildlife poaching. It holds particular wildlife such as elephants and the rhinoceros poachers. 

After poaching the animals’ tusks and the horns, they leave the animals there. The vultures do attract the animal’s remains and fly in circles around the ground where the illegal wildlife poachers have left the animals behind. 

When the vultures visit the wildlife remains, the authorities could track out the illegal hunting instances by following the vultures and noting where the vultures are circling for their meal. It provides a crucial role for the environment, one for cleaning the surroundings or environment as a whole and the other for identifying dead wildlife due to illegal wildlife poaching. 

The authorities can eradicate the remaining body of the poached wildlife. It ultimately eradicates the lousy odor and ensures a safer environment for a prolonged period. 

Umbrella species

Okapi is an example of umbrella species
Okapi is an example of umbrella species

Vulture has been acting as an umbrella species over the years in an ecosystem. It safeguards other wildlife species such as ibex and the golden eagles. Since they do not kill the animals intentionally, there are no huge issues of the human-vulture conflict at the community level. 

Protection of the vultures is the protection of the mountain ecosystem. Thus, it is very substantial to realize its massive contribution to nature. It ultimately creates a win-win relationship when they are realized for the environment. 

Aids to the governments 

Protect nature's clean-up crew
Protect nature’s clean-up crew | Image Credit – CGTN

The vultures clean up the larger environment and eliminate the treatment needed to treat and incinerate tons of the wildlife carcasses that remain in the environment throughout the year. Serving as a free cleaning medium in the future does save millions in waste management activities. It is imperative to know that saving the environmental cost for the treatment saves the environment. 

Carbon dioxide reduction in an ecosystem

A large amount of carbon dioxide may be released from the reading carcasses in an ecosystem once it is exposed all year. When the vultures feed on the wildlife carcasses, the carcasses decrease, avoiding the potential emission of tons of carbon dioxide per year. Since scientists have been working day and night to sequester the carbon dioxide, the vultures have been serving significantly to halt carbon emissions.  

The detector of the gas leakage

Despite the ugly presence of the vulture, ever wondered how they assist in the environmental conservation activities? Do you believe that the vulture is inferred as a gas leakage detector? Absolutely. Among nearly all the birds, the turkey vulture does possess an excellent smelling sense. It aids the natural gas companies in detecting the gas leaks timely. 

There could not be any cascade influences in the environment when the vulture carries out the preventive and the remedial actions by cleaning. Since the chemicals found in the gas are the same as that in the carcasses, the vultures get attracted to the leak and can detect the gas leakage from far distances. 

Naturally, in the carcasses, you could smell the odor of ethyl mercaptan. It attracts the turkey vulture, and the vultures gather here, smelling this odor. This observation can alert petroleum engineers to detect the possible gas leakage in several parts of the ecosystem. 

Knowing this, they can adopt several strategies to halt and control the gas leakage, which can prevent thousands of the detrimental outcomes imposed by the gas leakage once it occurs at a spatial scale.

Disease prevention

Since the vultures have the quick ability to devour the massive amount of the dead animals’ flesh and their unique mechanism of the stomach acid that neutralizes the pathogens, they are the indicators to limit the bacteria and multiple diseases spreading such as Anthrax, cholera, and rabies. It will assist the government in eradicating the disease outbreaks resulting from the carcasses remaining in the environment for a prolonged time. 

Feeding on prey

Feeding on prey
Feeding on prey | Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons

The feeding mechanism of the vulture is unique. It feeds on numerous prey such as rodents, smaller birds, and lizards. You have been recording the poisonous food cases within the country resulting from these prey. When vultures rely on these preys for their diet, it undoubtedly reduces the poisoning cases in the people. The vulture is inferred as a notable species that controls the poisoning cases and keeps the environment free of poisons. 

Wrapping Up

Vultures play a vital contribution in cleaning our environment. Despite its ugly physical appearance, you can seek the magical support of this creature in aiding us to keep our nature safer and cleaner. Since long back, the vulture has been with us in improving our environment.

Since the vulture has been suffering through several threatening stages and is reaching the extinction brink, it is of utmost necessity to launch the vulture breeding centers and conservation actions to ensure its survival for a prolonged period. Let’s unite together to save it for us and our incoming generations.

Kalpana Ghimire holds a post-graduate degree in Environmental Science from Nepal. She possesses numerous research experiences working in water pollution, community forestry, environment conservation status, and wildlife ecology. She was an internee in the Department of Environment (EIA monitoring and auditing section) under the Government of Nepal. Kalpana Ghimire is an avid traveler, an enthusiastic wildlife researcher, and has a huge passion for working in the environment sector. She loves far traveling to the natural areas, conducting field wildlife research and reading the novels.