The Role of Vultures in the Ecosystem

A solitary vulture leans over the carcass of a wildebeest on the Masai Mara. Instead of feasting on the carcass the vulture looks around surveying the surrounding area. What is it waiting for? Surely the clever thing to do would be to gorge on the carcass before competition arrives. Other birds begin to land including white-backed vultures and a marabou stork, aptly named the ‘undertaker’ bird, but like the first, they just land and watch. This is not the frenzied feeding behaviour that we expect to see from vultures!

Rüppell's vulture waits at an unopened carcass

The answer lies in the carcass and in the species. The wildebeest has not been killed but has died of old age, disease or perhaps injury, one of many wildebeest that will die during the great migration. The vulture is a Rüppell's vulture and despite being a voracious diner that can eat most parts of the animal including bones, it is not equipped to open a carcass by penetrating the tough hide of the animal. They wait for the arrival of the powerful, but endangered, lappet-faced vultures or other predators and scavengers capable of penetrating the hide. All the Rüppell's can do at this stage is wait and position itself well for a feed should help arrive. With dramatically declining numbers in apex predators, vultures, and other scavenging species, there may come a time when help does not arrive.

What happens if carcasses remain uneaten? Eventually, a rotting carcass will swell with fly larvae, burst and lead to a boom in insect populations, dramatically increasing the risk of pathogen spread to other animals, livestock and humans. It is estimated that vultures dispose of 70% of the carrion in Africa, helping to prevent the spread of anthrax, cholera, botulinum toxins, rabies, and other diseases. Their highly acidic digestive system can digest rotting and diseased flesh with no ill effects.

Rüppell's vulture on a rotting carcass

Imagine how quickly society would deteriorate if garbage collectors disappeared. Belonging to the raptor family, vultures are nature’s garbage collectors. Unlike others of this group such as eagles and owls, vultures do not hunt for themselves but feed almost exclusively on carrion. There is evidence that the largest, most aggressive species, the lappet-faced vulture may occasionally take small animals, reptiles and birds but carrion is the by far their staple diet.

On an open carcass, each species has its own individual feeding preferences. The dominant lappet-faced prefers sinew, muscle, tendons, and skin over soft tissue.  Smaller species including the white-backed vulture and Rüppell's vulture devour meat and soft tissue and eventually bone when there is little else left. White-headed vultures are less aggressive feeders, but they can eat any part of the animal except the skin. They are referred to as ‘clean feeders’ preferring to remove pieces of meat to eat away from the carcass and to pick at tendons and bones. The critically endangered hooded vultures, the smallest of all the species, have a finer beak allowing them to pick away at the harder to reach parts of the carcass. Within hours, the frenzied feeding of a group of vultures commonly referred to as a ‘wake of vultures’ leaves little to nothing behind. The loss of any species of vulture is something that the ecosystem can ill afford.

White-backed and Rüppell's vultures at a zebra kill.

The Decline of Vulture Numbers in Africa

Part of human nature is that we consider some animals to be beautiful and others not. A swan elicits a warm response whereas vultures are often perceived as vile, disgusting, ugly creatures. Regardless of the reasons, it is unfortunate from a conservation point of view for a species to be considered unappealing, despite how crucial their existence is to the ecosystem. It is always easier to raise concerns and conservation support for a species that is beautiful, iconic or cute than those that are less attractive or are species that are reviled by society.

African Vulture Species

Hooded Vulture

Hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus) Critically Endangered

White-backed vulture

White-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) Critically Endangered

Rüppell's vulture

Rüppell's vulture (Gyps Rueppelli) Critically Endangered

Lappett-faced vulture

Lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotos) Endangered

Cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres) Endangered

Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) Endangered

Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) Near Threatened

Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) Least Concern

Palm-nut Vulture (Gypohierax angolensis) Least Concern

Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus) Near Threatened

White-headed vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) Critically Endangered

Vultures certainly fall into the category of being physically less appealing to most than many other species and are now the most threatened of all bird groups with more than half of the vulture species in existence now facing extinction. Even though vultures play a crucial role in the ecosystem, their struggle for survival fails to evoke the same interest or attract the same attention and support as more appealing species. Myths associated with vultures, their association with death, as well as their appearance and eating habits do little to help their situation.

African vultures belong to a group referred to as Old World vultures. Old World refers to the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. There are sixteen species of Old World vultures and Africa is home to eleven species, eight of which have declined by an average of 62% in the past 30 years. White-backed vultures have declined by around 90% and conservation efforts are crucial to prevent their extinction. 

Capable of extraordinary flight both in height and distance, vultures scour the African plains looking for food. Rüppell’s vultures have been known to reach heights of 11,000 feet (3.35 kilometres).  Using thermals to help them gain altitude and cover long distances with as little effort as possible, they have keen eyes and locate carcasses by watching the circling behaviour of other vultures that may have spotted a potential feed.

The sight of this circling behaviour is one of Africa’s most iconic images but one that also threatens the survival of vultures. It is used by the authorities to locate the illegal activities of poachers who have killed large game. The poachers, in turn, are poisoning the carcasses after removing what they want in order to eradicate these birds and avoid detection. In 2019 more than 530 vultures were killed in Botswana after feeding on elephant carcasses that had been poisoned by the poachers to evade detection. This included 468 critically endangered white-backed vultures and does not include the numbers of young birds that were potentially lost away from the site due to the death of parent birds. The estimated loss was probably closer to 1500 birds. The loss of such a large number of birds is devastating to the survival of the species. With many birds descending to feed, a single poisoned carcass can take a terrible toll.

Indirect poisoning is also a problem. Many African subsistence farmers can ill afford the loss of even a small number of livestock, so they use baits poisoned with the pesticides Furadan and aldicarb to eradicate predators that threaten their livestock. Birds feeding on the baits and the deceased predators also fall victim. The use of veterinary medicines to treat livestock also results in secondary poisoning. Used as an anti-inflammatory treatment in livestock, the drug Diclofenac is toxic to vultures and proves fatal if vultures feed on deceased animals that have been treated with the drug.

Like many other species of wildlife, loss of habitat from expanding human populations results in diminished food sources and nesting sites. Vultures have a long breeding cycle with small numbers of eggs and young being produced. White-backed vultures only raise one chick per year so recovery from losses is a slow process. Survival rates amongst younger birds are considerably lower than older birds so the loss of older birds can lead to a rapid decline in numbers. Vultures are mistakenly perceived as pests by some cultures and are persecuted and killed and with their massive wingspan, electrocution from collisions with power lines is also a contributing factor. 

Vulture populations are targeted by poachers trading in illegal bushmeat and body parts. As poachers often use poison to kill the vultures, the consumption of vulture bushmeat also poses a threat to humans. Body parts are also in demand for use in traditional medicine.  Believing that the body parts have medicinal properties, traditional healers use them for treating a range of medical conditions. The head of a vulture is believed to be a good luck charm, providing the person possessing the head with the ability to predict the future through dreams. This makes them highly prized by gamblers and people hoping to predict lottery numbers.

Rüppell's vulture in flight

What Can be Done to Combat the Decline in Vulture Numbers?

Like most conservation efforts, raising awareness is the first hurdle followed by education on the causes and consequences of a failure to act. In the case of vultures, raising awareness is a necessity given the poor public image of the birds. Making people aware of the consequences of using, or purchasing, vulture body parts are important. Encouraging the use of ‘green medications’ in livestock and lobbying the government for the banning of toxic pesticides such as Furadan and Aldicarb are all crucial to the survival of these guardians of the ecosystem.

Vulture restaurants are one method being used to educate visitors to the crucial role the birds play in the environment and provide a safe feeding area for vultures to feed on a regular basis. They provide an opportunity to raise awareness and educate visitors on the importance of preserving these birds for a healthy ecosystem. Organizations such as Vulpro and the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust also conduct research by monitoring nest sites and numbers and following the movements of animals using satellite tracking tags. A better understanding of the movements and habits of these birds will aid in their conservation. Vulpro also rescues and rehabilitates injured and orphaned birds and has captive breeding programs for birds that are unable to be released.

Vulture restaurant guests

Donations are crucial to helping these organizations to fund their research and conservation efforts. It may be easier to fundraise for elephants or more appealing species but we should be mindful that being immune to the diseases that kill their prey such as anthrax and rabies, vultures prevent the spread of these diseases. Without them we could lose many other species including lions, elephants, painted dogs and even see the spread of these diseases to humans. Like them or not, the world needs vultures and vultures need our support.

Donate to Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust

Donate to Vulpro (Vulture Protection in South Africa)

Further Reading from this Author

Vulture Restaurants: A Dining Experience with a Difference

Fundraising Conservation Bumper Stickers

Customize the text to your own requirements. A percentage of your purchase goes directly to vulture and wildlife conservation. SHOP NOW

Vulture preservation bumper sticker

Vulture conservation bumper sticker

Wildlife conservation bumper sticker