Vultures: Waste managers of the savannah
The disposal of animals' remains is an essential part of the circle of life. This task is mainly done by vultures. Learn more about these fascinating but sadly critically endangered animals in this blog.
The art of recycling dead animal remains is a central component in the cycle of life. In order to prevent disease and recycle nutrients, it is important that the carcasses of dead or killed animals are efficiently
decomposed. This task is taken over in large parts of Africa by vultures.
The degradation and recycling process of carrion can be lengthy and associated with very unpleasant odors, especially when it takes place in humid, warm temperatures. Man and most animals would stay away from decaying animal carcasses, not only because of the bad smell, but also because of the increased risk of disease.
Without vultures, degradation processes in African nature would be much slower and the risk of disease would increase enormously. This would be a threat not only to humans but also to other species. The gastric juice of vultures has a very high acid content, which enables them to digest even highly decomposed meat and kill pathogens that lead to botulism, cholera, anthrax or even rabies.
Watching vultures feeding on a dead animal is an experience in any case and shows how majestic these often underestimated animals are. Up to 1 kg of meat can be taken up by vultures within one feeding unit. When food intake is finished, the animals usually stay on the ground and linger in a kind of ecstasy until the food has been digested. This is mainly to save energy, because flying with a full stomach is very energy-consuming. If a predator disturbs the digestive pause, the birds can regurgitate their stomach contents and drastically reduce their body weight. In this way a fast escape into the air is possible; this is remarkable, if one considers that vultures can weigh between 4 and 15 (!) kg.
Vultures have also developed energy-saving strategies for flying. To ascend into the air, they use updrafts. No fast and energy-intensive wing flaps are used, but only a few strong wing flaps and different wing formations (e.g. a V-shape with warm up winds).
Gliding at height allows the animals to search the landscape for animal carcasses. This is a specific characteristic of the Old World vultures in Africa, Europe and Asia. The New World vultures (North and South America) rely more on their sense of smell than on their sense of sight.
It is unfortunate that African vultures do not receive the attention and protection they deserve. As they enjoy a rather bad image, there is a lack of a strong lobby that advocates for the highly endangered animals. Not only the continuous destruction of their habitat is a problem for these fascinating birds, but also their increasing poisoning and hunting. Unless intense protection measures are implemented, many local vulture populations will die out by 2020.
As a volunteer in Africa, for example when joining our conservation project in Zululand, you can help protect vultures in Southern Africa. Furthermore, Natucate programmes like a field guide course in Kenya or a safari trip in Botswana give you the chance to witness these fascinating animals up close.