Yes, I really do believe that vultures are fascinating! I imagine you either agree with me, or you are pulling some kind of disgusted face. So let me explain. I’m a fan of vultures and love to sketch them (I haven’t created many studio paintings of them, but am hoping to remedy this over the next few years). Their amazing eyesight allows them to spot a carcass from vast distances and they follow other vultures if they start to descend. If they land in trees, maybe they’ve seen a predator near the carcass and need to be cautious. If they swoop to the ground with feet splayed like grappling hooks and land close to the carcass, there are likely to be no predators present. They have an immediately recognizable silhouette, even though there is great variety among vulture species.
You might think vultures are common across Africa, but this is no longer the case. Some species, like White-backed Vultures (Gyps africanus) are listed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered. Their numbers are declining due to electrocution and collisions with power lines; habitat loss; trade in vulture parts; loss of large ungulate populations which are their main food source; and inadvertent or intentional poisoning. (Poison is sometimes applied to livestock or wildlife carcasses by people in rural areas as a means of killing predators, but this can result in the death of dozens of vultures at a time, as well as the death of any other mammal, bird, reptile or insect which feeds on the carcass.)
One morning in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, we set out for a drive and found the carcass of a young wildebeest. It was completely untouched and had obviously died of natural causes during the night. White-backed vultures, a couple of Rüppell’s vultures and some maribou storks had found the carcass and were collecting around it. Later that same day we passed the spot again and found a completely clean, intact skeleton. I wish I had taken a photo, but I’m afraid I didn’t.
Vultures have an amazing ability to digest rotting flesh without getting sick. Imagine the great wildebeest migration without any vultures to clean up the remains of the many animals who die along the way. There are occasions when dozens of animals die crossing the Mara river – crushed by the weight of animals around them. Crocodiles and other predators would eat their fill, but they alone can’t handle the number of carcasses. Bodies would pile up on the banks and in the river, poisoning the water as it travels out of the national park towards Lake Victoria and the Nile, where thousands of people live along the shores.
So next time you pull a face at the idea of vultures, remember that they, like every other living creature, perform an amazing and necessary function.
A little respect for the fascinating vulture, please!