Quarters for Conservation: Vulpro
Hi, I’m Christina, Lead Keeper in Ambassador Animals and the Quarters for Conservation Champion for Vulpro, one of the three organizations benefiting from the 2022 program year of our initiative that directs 25 cents of every general admission to programs for wildlife.
Over the past several decades, vulture populations have declined in Africa and Asia. In Africa, 70% of the vulture species are endangered or critically endangered. Even in the past couple of years, many populations have fallen by as much as 97%. But what does that matter?
Vultures may be unattractive and have some peculiar habits. If you have not heard about them, let me share some of these unusual practices. Vultures tend to eat dead things. This is actually a significant role in the environment. If vultures did not eat dead things, those dead things would remain in the environment, attracting insects, bacteria, and feral dogs that would spread diseases. Also, the smell would attract more insects and dogs to the carcass, resulting in a breeding ground for disease. Yum!? Not at all. Vultures can eat a dead animal that might have died from disease and consume it without getting sick. They remove these smelly eyesores from the environment, neutralizing it, and putting the nutrients back into the environment in a less toxic manner. To help them, they do not have head feathers; otherwise those would get all messy too. By having a bald head instead, it is easier to wipe the mess off in the grass or wash it off.
A carcass that has been sitting in the sun that has just been devoured by a vulture is a fine meal, but also a fine defense strategy. If an African wild dog, hyena, or other scavenging predator approaches to eat the vulture, the vulture has a surprise for them. The vulture is too full and heavy to fly away. Instead, they projectile-vomit the foul carcass into that predator’s face. This makes them lighter to fly to safety. It also gives that predator an easy decision the next time they are thinking about eating a meal of vulture.
Since vultures are good at finding carcasses, poachers have targeted them. When a poaching incident occurs, the poacher does not want the attention of a game warden. They will lace the carcass with poisons. Anything that eats the carcass is impacted killing indiscriminately, including hyenas, lions, wild dogs, and vultures. Vulpro, in South Africa, aims to help vultures. Not only do they help with rehabilitation of poisoning cases, but they also rehabilitate birds that have collided with power lines and other human-made objects. They also manage breeding of vultures in human care for release, education programs, and research to understand the relationships that vultures have with our ever-changing world. To study the birds’ movements, they have become the leader in capture techniques to place transmitters on birds to trach their movements.
Over the past few years, Vulpro has been studying the preference of vulture species’ tree choice to nest in, how high the nest needs to be, and the nest success. Zoo Atlanta has helped to fund this research since 2016 through our Mabel Dorn Reeder Conservation Endowment Fund, and this year’s Quarters for Conservation, another annual opportunity for conservation organizations to receive conservation dollars.
So, the next time you see a vulture, thank them. Everyone has unusual characteristics, even humans. However, we do not rely on a vulture’s unusual characteristics for our survival. You can even help vultures by voting: https://zooatlanta.org/conservation-action/quarters-for-conservation/.
Lead Keeper, Ambassador Animals and Quarters for Conservation Champion, Vulpro