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Earth's Cleaning Crew

Vultures play an important role in ecosystems. With vulture populations dropping fast, researchers are racing to save these strange birds.

Vultures are often seen as scary creatures. Their bald heads, huge wings, hooked beaks, and long necks make the birds look frightening. Plus, of course, they’re known for feasting on the bodies of dead animals. Not exactly cute.

A vulture’s long neck and sharp beak make it an ideal carcass consumer.


But the features that make vultures spooky also help them. They are the only vertebrates vertebrate CHRISTOPHER AUSTIN—LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY an animal with a backbone (noun) A frog in Papua New Guinea is the world’s smallest known vertebrate. built especially for eating meat from dead animals. By eating animals that are already dead, vultures provide a service to fellow animals and humans.

But the features that make vultures spooky also help them. They are the only scavengers scavenger ROB AULT—GETTY IMAGES an animal that feeds on dead animals or garbage (noun) Many insects, such as the blowfly, are scavengers. , like wild dogs. The birds are able to eat diseased carcasses, or dead animal bodies, and not get infected or pass the diseases along.

A hyena and vultures eye a dead animal.


Birds in Danger

Around the world, vulture species are in trouble. According to BirdLife International, seven of the 11 vulture species that live in Africa are in danger of extinction. Several species of vultures in Asia are endangered.

The decline is mostly caused by the poisoning of vultures’ food. Usually, farmers and ranchers don’t mean to poison vultures. Instead, their goal is to kill lions, hyenas, and other large predators that attack their livestock. Farmers will cover a dead cow with extremely powerful poisons. “With a single carcass, you might kill one or two lions,” Kendall says. “But you’ll kill tens or even hundreds of vultures.”

Vultures feast on an a dead elephant.


Poachers, or illegal hunters, are also responsible for poisoning vultures. Kendall remembers a single poisoned elephant body killing 700 birds. The poachers want to kill the birds because they see them as enemies. Park rangers follow vultures to the bodies of recent poaching victims, like elephants. This helps the authorities find the poachers. “Vultures are a ranger’s best friend,” Kendall says.

She and many others are working to help vultures. They are educating farmers and livestock owners about the effects of poisoning carcasses. Organizations are working to give people safer ways to protect their cows.

In Africa, farmers try to kill lions, but instead poison vultures.


Stopping poachers from hurting vultures is more difficult. Evan Buechley is an ecologist at the University of Utah. He says governments must work together to crack down on poaching. “People in different countries are doing good work to combat poisoning [by poachers],” he says. “So there’s some hope.”

Another focus is helping people understand how important vultures are. Buechley enthusiastically accepts their creepy reputation. “I think [appreciating] how gross they are can be great,” he says. “They’re pretty awesome."