Vultures have an undeserved bad reputation. They're often seen as dirty, ugly scavengers, congregating around dead or dying animals. But the reality is that ecosystems rely on these birds, which have many important roles. While their choice of food may turn your stomach, they're helping to reduce the spread of disease by cleaning up carrion.
Yet, vulture populations — particularly in Africa and Asia — have plummeted in the last few decades. For instance, the white-backed vulture of India was so abundant in 1980 that it was considered one of the most common large birds of prey in the entire world. Now, just a few decades later, it is critically endangered after a 99.9 percent decline.
Vultures need large ranges to scan for food and undisturbed areas in which to nest. They also need an abundance of prey species since they rely more on chance than their own hunting skills to eat. All of these things have been reduced by human activity. Meanwhile, there is a dramatic increase in secondary poisoning. Vultures feed on carcasses laced with poison, intended to kill jackals or other predatory carnivores. Or they are poisoned by the lead in animals left behind by hunters. Or they are poisoned by diclofenac, a veterinary drug given to livestock which is toxic to vultures who feed on animals that die naturally or are brought down by other animals.
PhysOrg reports, "Throughout Africa, vulture populations have suffered an alarming collapse in numbers in recent years. In rural parts of West Africa some species have declined by over 95%, while the famous Maasai Mara National Reserve has lost an average of 62% of its vultures over the past three decades. Aside from poisoning - both targeted and incidental - vultures are threatened by wind turbines, electricity pylons, habitat destruction, food loss and poaching."
Of the 23 vulture species of the world, 16 are considered
near threatened, vulnerable to extinction, endangered or critically
endangered. Africa and
India are experiencing a vulture crisis.
Just what do we stand to lose? An incredible diversity of unique, specialized, and yes, beautiful birds that fill vital roles in ecosystems. Let's take a look at the species that need saving.
Cinereous vulture, Aegypius monachus
The cinereous vulture has an astounding wing span of 10 feet, and is considered the largest true bird of prey in the world. It is also considered one of the two largest Old World vulture species, with the Himalayan vulture sometimes having more length thanks to a longer neck. The species is known by several names, including the black vulture, monk vulture or Eurasian black vulture.
The cinereous vulture's decline is due to causes common to the decline of other vulture species. It eats poisons intended to kill wild dogs and other predators. Other factors include habitat disruption from human development, and that it has higher than usual hygiene standards and thus has less carrion available to eat. Sadly, there are only an estimated 4,500-5,000 individuals left.
Andean condor, Vultur gryphus
The Andean condor can be found soaring in the skies over the Andes mountains. Though it is the national symbol of several South American countries, it has declined due to habitat loss and secondary poisoning from animal carcasses killed by hunters. The Andean condor is a long-lived bird and its corresponding low reproductive rates means that the species is particularly vulnerable to losses from human activity or persecution.
Captive breeding and reintroduction programs have been introduced in Argentina, Venezuela and Colombia with some success. Indeed, the Andean condor served as a test pilot of sorts for the captive breeding and reintroduction program for the critically endangered California condor.
Himalayan vulture, Gyps himalayensis
This species is found in the high elevations of the Himalayas, the Pamirs, Kazakhstan and on the Tibetan Plateau. Though susceptible to toxicity induced by diclofenac, a drug found in domestic animal carcasses that affects many species of vulture, the Himalayan vulture hasn't experienced the rapid decline that so many other species are suffering. Even so, there has been enough of a decline in the population and nesting bird numbers that it is now considered near threatened.
Lammergeier vulture or bearded vulture, Gypaetus barbatus
The Lammergeyer vulture is one of the few species that have plumage on its face, which gives it its other common name, the bearded vulture. It is a bird of prey that is typically considered an Old World Vulture. They are scavengers, but will sometimes kill live prey including tortoises, hares, marmots and rock hyraxes. Rather than feasting on meat, the species focuses on eating bone marrow, which makes up 85-90 percent of its diet.
In 2014, the species was reassessed from "least concern" to "near threatened." The species has a very large range, and is found in Europe, Asia and Africa. However, various local declines have conservationists worried. Around 10,000 pairs are estimated to exist worldwide.
Vulnerable to Extinction
The lappet-faced vulture, or Nubian vulture, is found in Africa. (Photo: EcoPrint/Shutterstock)
This Old World vulture species is also known as the Nubian vulture, and is found in much of Africa, though with patchy distribution. It doesn't have as good a sense of smell as some other vulture species, and finds food by sight. These are big, tough vultures and can tear through tough hides on their own, unlike many vulture species that wait for the help of hyenas and other scavenging animals to open the carcass for them. This means they can sometimes be a beneficial competitor among vultures at a carcass. At other times, the species will hang out at the edge and wait to clean up the scraps no one else wants, finishing up their role in clean up.
Unfortunately, the populations of the lappet-faced vulture has dropped significantly in recent years due to human activity, including habitat loss, a loss of natural predators and prey as cattle ranching takes over habitat, and eating poisons intended for jackals and other carnivores. Sometimes, they are specifically targeted and killed, either by cattle herders who think they're killing their cattle or by poachers who don't want authorities to notice the activity of vultures and be led to their kill site. There are now fewer than 9,000 lappet-faced vultures left in the world.
White-headed vulture, Trigonoceps occipitalis
Though it is called the white-headed vulture, it certainly has a colorful face. This species, like some other vulture species, is both a scavenger and sometimes a hunter, going for small vertebrates. It is found in sub-Sahara Africa, and has a very large range. But even so, populations have been declining for decades and in southern Africa, it is now found almost only in protected areas. There are an estimated 10,000-20,000 individuals left.
Cape vulture, Gyps coprotheres
The cape vulture is found in southern Africa and unlike some other more solitary vulture species, loves to be in groups. They nest and roost in colonies and forage together. Their group behavior also means that there are many at a single feeding site, so there can be some competition for getting a meal. Unfortunately this also means the possibility of many cape vultures being poisoned at once when feeding on a poisoned carcass.
Another threat to the survival of the species is a lack of large carnivores. According to Arkive, "A decrease in carnivores within the vulture’s range, due to farming activities, has also been blamed for causing skeleton abnormalities in chicks. Large carnivores would break up the bones of carcasses into small fragments, and the Cape vultures would feed these tiny fragments to the chicks as a source of calcium."
As a result, conservation efforts include setting up feeding areas where cape vultures are provided with food and bone flakes so the vultures can get the nutrition they need. This along with education efforts are the beginning of much needed help for this and other vulture species.
White-backed vulture, Gyps africanus
This species loves lowland, wooded savannas and can be found nesting in tall trees. It is found from South Africa up to the Sahara and across most of the continent from east to west. The white-backed vulture is the most common vulture in Africa and one of the most widespread, but it is also experiencing significant declines. For instance, if trends continue for the species where it occurs in South Africa, it may be locally extinct by 2034 or possibly even sooner.
In addition to poisoning and the decline of ungulate species in their habitat, this species is also targeted for trade, including use in traditional medicines. Though the species does live in protected areas, the fact that it ranges so far in search of food means that individuals spend a lot of time outside protected areas where they are even more vulnerable to dangers.
Rüppell's vulture, Gyps rueppelli
The Rüppell's vulture is an endangered species from the Sahel region of central Africa. (Photo: Jorge Láscar/Wikipedia)
The Rüppell's vulture is a huge bird with a wingspan of up to 8.5 feet and a weight of 14-20 pounds. This species has set the record for the highest flying bird, a record sadly confirmed after a collision with a commercial airplane at 37,000 feet in 1973. Normally, they hang out at around 20,000 feet or below, using their keen eyesight to spot a meal. Because the species is a strict scavenger, it needs to travel vast distances in search of food. The Rüppell's vulture can travel as far as 90 miles from the nest when scanning the ground for food.
Like some other vulture species, this is a highly social bird, gathering in large flocks when roosting, nesting, and of course, when feeding. There are an estimated 30,000 individuals left and the population is unfortunately on the decline, being bumped up in status from near threatened to endangered in 2012.
Hooded vulture, Necrosyrtes monachus
This unique looking species is found in sub-Saharan Africa. While the common name of hooded vulture seems obvious when taking a glance at its head, the species' scientific name is even more interesting and descriptive. Oregon Zoo writes, "The scientific name, Necrosyrtes monachus, means a 'monk-like (bird) that drags away the dead.'"
The hooded vulture is smaller than many other species, which is both an advantage and disadvantage. Because it is smaller, it can rise up on thermals faster and is often the first to spot a carcass. But then it has to wait until the larger, tougher vultures have their fill before it can scarf down the scraps. They are clever about their meals and can forage at low tide for sea food washed ashore, will catch insects and grubs, and will also forage at dumps near human habitation.
Despite this versatility, they have experienced a decline from being abundant in the late 1980s to being considered endangered by 2011.
Egyptian vulture, Neophron percnopterus
The Egyptian vulture is another standout among vulture species with a unique appearance. With only a bald face, the vulture has long feathers covering its neck, creating a spiky crest. The species has a large range, from southwestern Europe and northern Africa to India. Across that large range are three subspecies of Egyptian vulture, including a small and genetically distinct population found only in the eastern Canary Islands.
European populations will migrate south to Africa for winter, and can travel as far as 3,400 miles on their journey, sometimes flying more than 300 miles in a single day. Though they are usually seen alone or in pairs, the species does gather to roost in groups in trees or on cliffs near foraging sites.
The species has experienced a long-term decline in Europe with a 50 percent drop in the last 40 years, and has also undergone a rapid decline in India. Between this and ongoing declines in its African range, the species as a whole is at serious risk.
Indian vulture, Gyps indicus
The Indian vulture, also known as the long-billed vulture, is often found near human habitation, including cities and villages, where it feeds on carrion including that found around dumps and slaughterhouses. The species has thus been hit hard by the veterinary drug diclofenac.
According to the IUCN, "Survey results indicate that declines throughout the Indian Subcontinent probably began in the 1990s and were extremely rapid, resulting in an overall population decline of greater than 97% over a 10-15 year period."
Captive breeding programs have been started to help slow the decline of the species. However, like all vulture species, the Indian vulture is a long-lived bird and does not reach maturity until 5 years old. This means it will take decades before captive breeding programs can make a difference for the species.
Slender-billed vulture, Gyps tenuirostris
The slender-billed vulture lives along the Sub-Himalayan regions and into Southeast Asia. For a long time it was considered the same species as the Indian vulture, with both species called the long-billed vulture. But it has recently been named its own species after researchers found that the range of the two species don't overlap.
Like the Indian vulture, though, the species has experienced a precipitous decline. There were only around 1,000 individuals left in 2009 and the species is at risk of going completely extinct in the wild within the decade.
IUCN notes that among the conservation efforts that may help the species, beyond of course banning the drugs poisoning the birds, is ecotourism. "Vulture restaurants are used as ecotourism attractions in parts of the species's range to raise awareness and fund supplementary feeding programmes and research - in Cambodia these are run by The Cambodia Vulture Conservation Project and a partnership between national and international conservation NGOs."
White-rumped vulture, Gyps bengalensis
The white-rumped vulture holds a heartbreaking record. The species has experienced the fastest decline of any bird species in recorded history. Even more so than the Indian vulture and slender-billed vulture.
According to RSPB, "The Oriental white-backed vulture was so abundant in India in the 1980s that it was probably the most common large bird of prey in the world. Only one in a thousand now survives, a 99.9% decline for this species."
The last three species in this list — the Indian vulture, the slender-billed vulture and the white-rumped vulture — show the severity of the crisis among Asia's vulture species.
"All three species - the Oriental white-backed, the long-billed and the slender-billed vulture - have declined by more than 97% since the early 1990s. This shocking decline is because of a veterinary drug, diclofenac, which is toxic to any vulture that feeds on the carcass of recently treated cattle," writes RSPB.
The loss of these species has a wide-ranging impact. Scientific American reports of the Indian vulture crisis, "The loss of the vultures had a cascading effect. Without the scavengers to eat fallen cows the number of feral dogs increased, as did incidents of human disease. One religion, Zoroastrianism, whose members leave their dead for the vultures, also had to build $5-million worth of vulture aviaries to maintain their tradition."
Red-headed vulture, Sarcogyps calvus
This striking species is easily identified by its bright red head and neck, as well as the two broad folds of skin on either side of the neck, known as lappets.
Once ranging across the Indian subcontinent, the red-headed vulture is now restricted to northern India. The species was undergoing a slow decline until recent years, when the population collapsed. In just 20 years, a species numbering in the hundreds of thousands is now close to extinction with fewer than 10,000 individuals estimated to be left in the wild.
Arkive writes, "Although the red-headed vulture occurs in various protected areas throughout its range, these are unable protect it from diclofenac treated livestock... [I]t may be some years before the use of diclofenac completely comes to an end in these countries. It is, therefore, urgent that captive-breeding programs, similar to those being employed for Gyps species, be developed in order to safeguard this species from total extinction."
California condor Gymnogyps californianus
One vulture species famed for the captive breeding and reintroduction program keeping the species alive is the California condor.
The California condor is a massive bird. Its wingspan can reach nearly 10 feet — the largest of any North American bird — and its weight can be as heavy as 31 pounds. The great bird can reach an age of 60 years old in the wild.
Once widespread across North America, the end of the last ice age shrank its range to the west coast and the southwest. Due to persecution, collection, the effects of DDT, lead poisoning, collisions with power lines, and a range of other threats, the species went extinct in the wild in 1987. This is the year the last remaining condors — only 22 of them total — were captured for a captive breeding program. It was a last-ditch effort to save the species from total extinction that would become one of the most expensive species conservation efforts in U.S. history.
Since the recovery program began, several important milestones have been hit. The first nestling fledged in the wild in 2003. A pair of condors attempted a nest near Big Sur, the first time California condors had been seen nesting in Northern California in over a century. By 2014, there were 425 condors alive, with 219 of them living in the wild.
There have been enormous challenges to bringing California condors back from the brink, and the species is still far from being safe from extinction. But the successes by the recovery program show what can be accomplished if we act quickly enough on behalf of vultures.
Help Save Vultures Today
After reading through all of the species experiencing dramatic declines worldwide, you're probably left wondering what can be done. The following organizations are the ideal way to start helping. You can donate to or volunteer for:
- RSPB's Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction campaign.
- Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction, or SAVE, a consortium of organizations coordinating conservation efforts for Asia's vultures.
- VulPro, which focuses on vultures in general, with a particular focus on cape vultures.
- Vulture Conservation Foundation, or VCF, a non-profit focused on European vulture species, including bearded vultures, griffon vultures, cinereous vultures, and Egyptian vultures.