To celebrate World Environment Day, we are taking the opportunity to raise awareness about the vital role vultures play for a healthy environment.
Vultures have a bad reputation. With their perceived ‘ugliness’ and scavenging behaviour, vultures are easy to defame. Even naturalist Charles Darwin described them as ‘disgusting’. But when you look more closely, you’ll realise the world is better off with vultures.
Why are vultures important for the environment?
Vultures are often overlooked and perceived as lowly scavengers, but they play a crucial role in the environments in which they live. Their scavenging lifestyle that gives them a bad reputation is, in fact, what makes them so important for the environment, nature and society. Vultures, also known as nature’s cleanup crew, do the dirty work of cleaning up after death, helping to keep ecosystems healthy as they act as natural carcass recyclers.
They provide critically important ecosystem services and socioeconomic benefits. When livestock keepers realise the usefulness of vultures, they can have a win-win relationship. As vultures not only clean up the land, but they also eliminate the need for the treatment and incineration of thousands of tons of animal remains every year. This free cleaning service saves millions of euros in waste management and avoids the potential emission of hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 per year, benefiting our environment and society as a whole.
Furthermore, conserving vultures means aiding other wildlife. For example, conservation efforts to protect the Bearded Vulture do not only help this species but broader conservation and rewilding goals. As an umbrella species, by safeguarding the mountain habitat for the Bearded Vulture, other mountain wildlife benefits too, such as golden eagles and ibex. Further to this, as scavengers, they do not kill livestock or game species, and thus, there is not much human-wildlife conflict. So, it is possible to collaborate with multiple stakeholders such as livestock breeders and hunters to tackle threats they face, such as poisoning, which poses a severe threat to nature, wildlife and public health.
If vultures disappear from the mountainous habitats in which they live, ecosystems can go off balance. Protecting vultures means the protection of the entire mountain ecosystems. Therefore, it is crucial to protect vultures and make sure they have a bright future in the wild.
What caused the decline of vultures?
The four vulture species found in Europe – bearded, cinereous, griffon and Egyptian — were among the most common breeding birds in central and southern Europe two decades ago. Today, their numbers have plummeted in most countries due to various threats. Threats responsible include persecution, poisoning, electrocution, habitat loss and decline in food availability. But, the population of most vulture species in Europe is now on the rise thanks to several conservation efforts and investments.
How do we protect vultures?
Egyptian Vulture, Griffon Vulture, Bearded Vulture and Cinereous Vulture (l-r) (c) Bruno Berthemy
We, the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF) and our partners, are fighting to secure their survival. We are working across Europe to protect and restore the bearded, griffon, cinereous and Egyptian vultures to their former range across the continent. This work involves coordinating the Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Network to release birds into the wild in several reintroduction projects, fight against illegal wildlife poisoning such as the Balkan Anti-Poisoning Project, use technology to track the movements of birds to help inform the most effective conservation measures, and reintroduce birds to areas where they have disappeared.