The superpowers of a scavenger

 
 
 

Vultures aren’t pretty, but they are powerful. These scavengers can eat just about anything, even diseased carcasses. By preventing the spread of illness, they play a critical role in our ecosystems. Yet globally, their populations are declining. In southern Africa, the Cape vulture is one of the most endangered species.

Weighing up to 11 kilograms, these birds may appear burly, but they’re vulnerable to numerous hazards. They drown in reservoirs, and are killed by electrocutions from colliding with power lines. Yet the Cape vulture’s greatest threat is poisoning. While their extremely corrosive stomach acids enable them to digest carrion infected with diseases like rabies, it’s not enough against human-made toxins. Farmers deliberately lace the carcasses of livestock with poison to ward off predators such as jackals, which the scavengers unwittingly ingest. Because vultures feed in large groups, one poisoned animal can result in the demise of hundreds of birds. In some cases, they’re directly targeted for use in traditional medicine or because they’re seen as a menace. 

But the scavengers pose no risk. The real danger is if they’re no longer around. The numbers of Cape vulture have recently fallen to around 9 000. Without these birds cleaning up carrion, animals and humans are exposed to fatal diseases. By picking away meat to the last bone, vultures ensure environments remain sanitary and functional. They’re an essential part of an intelligent network. For ecosystems to remain intact, these birds need to safely feast.