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.
As a result of persecution, poisoning, electrocution, collision, habitat loss and changes in farming practices, today, 16 of the 23 species of vulture species are considered vulnerable, threatened, or endangered with the population of several species declining by 90% in some areas of the world. The good news is that vulture conservation does work, and in Europe, most of the vulture populations are increasing.
On this International Vulture Awareness Day, we will highlight the importance of vultures, how conservation work brought vultures back to Europe and what the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF) is doing to protect them.
Why are vultures important?
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 realize 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.
Vultures also provide cultural and spiritual services dating back thousands of years, as well as recreational services in the form of ecotourism, particularly for bird-watchers and photographers. For example, it has been estimated that the potential value of viewing Griffon Vultures at a nature reserve in Israel was more than US$1 million and that 85% of the visitors went to the park specifically to view vultures.
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.
It is now widely acknowledged that promoting the scavenging services provided by vultures would restore an important ecological function for the mutual benefit of vultures, the wider environment and ultimately provide socioeconomic and well-being benefits to people.
Vulture conservation works
Asia was the continent of vultures 40 years ago, but the use of Diclofenac, a painkiller drug given to moribund cattle, wiped out over 99% of vultures in South-east Asia. South-east Asia, in just about two decades. Then, 20 years ago, Africa was considered the continent of vultures, but due to the widespread use of wildlife poisoning, seven out of the eleven vultures species on the continent are now on the brink of extinction. Today, although it might not seem like it, Europe is the only place in the Old World where vultures are doing well, with vulture populations steadily increasing. This positive result comes after many years of investment and conservation put into protecting and boosting vulture populations in Europe.
The Egyptian Vulture, however, is still declining in some regions and is considered globally endangered. As Europe's only long-distance migratory vulture, not only does it face threats in its breeding grounds, but also across its flyway from Europe to Africa. The good news is that several conservation projects are aiming to save this species and to continue boosting vulture populations across Europe.
How the VCF is protecting Europe's vultures
Our story began with the reintroduction project of the Bearded Vulture in the Alps in the 1970s, leading to an international partnership dedicated to the preservation and recuperation of Europe's four vulture species. Today, the Bearded Vulture EEP is coordinated by the VCF and consists of over 40 partners that breed the species in captivity for conservation purposes, currently supporting five projects across Europe that, aim to reintroduce and restock the species.
Today, alongside our partners, we are part of over ten conservation projects fighting to secure the survival of Europe's vulture species. From tackling poisoning with the Balkan Anti-Poisoning Project to using GPS technology to study and monitor the movements of birds and reintroducing birds to areas where they have disappeared.
You can help us achieve our vulture conservation goals by donating to the VCF today.
International Vulture Awareness Day
On the first Saturday in September each year, the International Vulture Awareness Day takes place to raise awareness about the importance of vultures and to promote the vital work carried out by conservationists around the world to conserve and protect these magnificent birds!
Help us raise awareness about the importance of vultures by sharing this blog post with your friends and family!
Feel free to share the infographics of the European vulture species that you can download below.