New Video Showcases Threat Wildlife Trafficking Poses to Vultures

October 7, 2019

A hooded vulture in Zambia's Kafue National Park. Credit: Wynand Uys / Creative Commons

A hooded vulture in Zambia's Kafue National Park. Credit: Wynand Uys / Creative Commons

Vultures perform a civic duty that they take very seriously: As avid consumers of dead carcasses, they are the clean-up crew of the animal world. They can clear a wild animal carcass within minutes, sparing the rest of us from unsightly scenes, smells, and even pathogens. “They’re not pretty, but they provide a vital service,” says Dr. Munir Virani of the Peregrine Fund. 

These "flying garbage disposals" are suffering steep declines, especially in Africa. Hooded vultures, for example, have plummeted by 80% across the African continent and have not been seen in Mali since 2003. White-backed vultures, Egyptian vultures, and four other species are also in trouble.

Why are vultures disappearing? Many vultures are intentionally poisoned by poachers, who want to kill these scavengers because they “give away” the locations of poached animals (again, vultures love carcasses). Poachers who douse their animal victims in toxic pesticides can kill hundreds of vultures. Tragically, this past June, more than 500 vultures died in Botswana after consuming three poached elephants that had been poisoned. Most recent vulture deaths link back to illegal wildlife trafficking where vultures themselves are targeted for the illegal trade, with some consumers seeking out vulture brain and other parts for belief-based practices. Vulture populations cannot sustain these mass killings.

new video produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology illuminates the ecological roles of these amazing birds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Combating Wildlife Trafficking Branch provided financial support for this short film, through a grant to Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). Aimed at curbing the illegal trade and poisoning of critically endangered vultures in Africa, the grant also enables EWT to train law enforcement officials to respond to vulture poisoning events and to conserve these remarkable birds – and the critical services they provide. The USFWS also supports a project of BirdLife International to develop an action plan and conduct market surveys to better understand and combat the illegal trade of vultures and their parts in West Africa.