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Vultures: Nature's Endangered Clean Up Crew, Are Finding New Found Respect

The queens of the pharaohs were perceived as incarnations in the human form of Nekhbet, and they wore headdresses that represented the goddess and were expected to be her image in relation to the pharaoh. Nekhbet is a winged vulture goddess responsible for the protection of pharaohs and women in childbirth.

The Cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres) has declined throughout its range in southern Africa, recently being listed as extinct as a breeding species in Namibia. It has been suggested that climate change might have contributed to the decline of Cape vultures in northern parts of the range.

Unsustainable development is depriving vultures of food and habitat. As humans expand their communities and agricultural lands, new problems arise for vultures. New infrastructure, like power lines, presents myriad hazardous obstacles for these birds during flight. All this without the majority of humanity understanding the true reason vultures are a necessary part of the ecosystem, they are natures way to slow down or eradicate disease! In many tropic locales like Southern Africa without vultures to eat the festering carcasses, wild dogs have taken their place and populations have boomed. The dogs have, in turn, spread rabies , killing an estimated 60,000 people in the last twenty years.

Rotting carcasses can become hotbeds of disease, overrun by bacteria and insects. But vultures are an efficient clean-up crew. By eating carrion, they remove the carcasses and pass them through a highly acidic digestive system that wipes out disease-causing agents. Vultures, which exclusively eat dead animal carcasses, are particularly effective at removing pathogens and toxins in the environment because they rapidly consume carrion before it decays, and their stomachs contain an incredibly potent acid that destroys many of the harmful substances found in the remains of dead animals.

The bacteria and other microorganisms that live in a vulture's stomach allow it to safely eat dangerous pathogens that would make other animals sick. Vultures also produce antibodies that protect them against the bacteria that causes botulism (one of the deadliest known toxins). Vultures are hugely important for human and ecosystem health. They play a vital role in preventing the spread of disease, regulating scavenger populations, and spreading nutrients across landscapes. "Every year an anthrax (caused by Bacillus anthracis) outbreak occurs among the zebra population in Etosha National Park Africa (scavengers such as vultures are unaffected thanks to their strong digestive and immune systems thus protecting the human populations as well" (Chung et al., 2015).

The good news is higher global temperatures caused by man made climate change will decrease the chance of most vector-borne disease spreading in places that are currently relatively warm like the tropics Africa, India and South America. The bad news: warming will increase the chance that all diseases will see an increase in spread in places that are currently relatively cold such as continental Europe, Canada, North America, Greenland, Iceland and Northern Asia.

In the 1980s, more than 40 million vultures existed throughout India, where they ate about 12 million tons (11 million metric tons) of rotting flesh each year, according to the environmental writer Tony Juniper. Today, however, vulture populations have been reduced to only a few tens of thousands, and three of the most important species are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Between 1980 and 2021, weather- and climate-related extremes caused economic losses estimated at EUR 560 billion in the EU Member States, of which EUR 56.6 billion from 2021. Diseases are moving north. Mosquitos and ticks carrying infectious diseases are gaining a foothold in many parts of Europe. Climate change is predicted to lead to major changes in water availability across Europe, due to less predictable rainfall patterns and more intense storms. This will result in increased water scarcity, especially in southern and south-eastern Europe, and an increased risk of flooding throughout much of the continent.

When floods lead to severe disruption of infrastructure and sewage systems, the direct or indirect risk of gastrointestinal diseases increases due to the possibility of immediate exposure to waterborne and zoonotic fecal bacteria, viruses and parasites. Water-borne and food-borne diseases of relevance for Europe include campylobacteriosis, salmonellosis, infections with toxin-producing E. coli bacteria, Legionnaires' disease, shigellosis, leptospirosis, giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis. Thanks to reintroductions and species protection, European vulture populations are now slowly but steadily recovering. In many regions, the spectacular sight of vultures soaring through the sky has once again become a common sight.

There are merely 23 vulture species left across the world up to now, with only eight still living in China, mainly western provinces such as Xinjiang and Tibet it could have a future impact on health especially with the recent floods and natural disasters. China has 8 vulture species: Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis), Himalayan Griffon (Gyps himalayensis), Eurasian Griffon (Gyps fulvus), Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus), Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus), Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) and Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus). Most of China´s vultures live in the western part of the country, centred on the northwest, the Tibetan plateau, the Pamir plateau, Inner Mongolia and the Himalaya.

Without vultures, reeking carcasses would likely linger longer, insect populations would boom, and diseases would spread—to people, livestock, and other wild animals. Its time we say thank you to natures clean up crew!


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