endangered species

Why we should all love vultures

When most people think of vultures, they envisage giant, feathered, dirty scavengers, the characters from the Lion King hanging around on the branch without really contributing much, and big scary birds to be afraid of. But vultures are in fact hugely important to a healthy ecosystem, and keep everything in balance in the natural world. Today is International Vulture Awareness Day, which is a day to understand and share the plight of these ancient creatures that frankly, the world would be a very different place without.

What actually are vultures?

Vultures are birds of prey that can actually be split up into a total of 23 different species, and each have their own unique role to play within an ecosystem, which they are specially adapted for. In fact, at least one type of vulture can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Primarily, they can be split into two types, the New World vultures, which include the Andean condors and are found in the Americas and Caribbean, and the Old World vultures, which are those that can be seen around carcasses in Africa. For this article, we are going to focus mainly on the Old World vultures.

Known as ‘nature’s garbage collectors’, these birds are classed as scavengers because they often eat the leftover parts of carcasses that have been discarded after the initial predators have eaten the main parts of meat, or the parts that other animals are unable to digest.

Why do they get a bad name?

Due to their scavenging nature, vultures have been given a bad name, both when seen by tourists in the wild, by the media and in fiction films. People have the perception of scavengers scrounging from others who have made huge efforts to get their kill, instead of finding their own food. But the truth is, vultures often indulge in the parts of the carcass that would otherwise be left to rot, meaning that diseases would be spread, and frankly, the wild would be a very messy place. According to the IVAD website, studies have shown that in areas that contain no vultures, carcasses can take up to four times longer to decompose, which means a much higher spread of diseases in wild and domestic animals, which can be further spread to humans.

Another reason why they get a bad name is because it has been commonly said that vultures circle above a dying animal, waiting to feed. This is a myth. Whilst it is true that vultures can be seen circling in the sky, what they are actually doing is catching thermals which helps them to stay in the air whilst they look for food using their incredible sense of sight or smell.

Why are they so important?

Although vultures prefer to eat fresh meat, they are still able to consume rotting carcasses due to their strong stomach acid which kills any bacteria from the carcass that would be toxic to other animals. In this way, they are crucial to an ecosystem because they prevent the spread of diseases to many other animals.

When you look at vultures, you will also notice that despite their huge feathers, their head and neck is completely clear of any feathers at all. This is a special adaptation which means that any bacteria or parasites from the rotting carcass cannot latch on to the vultures, which therefore stops any infections.

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How are they under threat?

Perhaps lesser known than the plight of rhinos, tigers and elephants, vultures are also severely under threat for many different reasons. Out of the 23 species of vulture, 14 of those are currently considered to be either threatened or endangered.

One of the factors that aid hugely in their decline is the act of poacher poisoning. This is done in a few different ways depending on the desired outcome. One way is not targeted directly to vultures at all, but can result in a huge number of bird deaths. This involves poachers poisoning an elephant with a dart, for example, which will eventually kill it. Not only is this devastating due to the loss of an elephant, but it also means the death of any other animal that feeds on that carcass, which is now poisoned throughout. Just one elephant that has been killed by dart poisoning could then unintentionally cause the death of a large number of lions, hyenas, leopards and vultures. Furthermore, as many species of vultures work on a single carcass together, this one elephant poisoning could cause the death of hundreds of vultures.

Another way that vultures are poisoned is one that is specifically targeted at killing them. Due to the huge illegal wildlife trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory, there are many carcasses for the vultures to feed on. However, as the vultures are seen locating the carcass in the sky before swooping down to have their meal, these sights of huge numbers of vultures above a carcass are a key signal for the authorities to find the carcass quickly, and be on the tracks of the poachers. As poachers do not want an increased chance of being caught, they purposely poison the carcasses, causing vulture populations to severely decline.

A further factor that causes the decline of vulture populations is ancient traditions in certain cultures that use various parts of a vulture for medicines, of which 29% of vulture deaths are attributed to. In some cases, individuals will use the eyes of a vulture, as they believe that this helps them see into the future due to the impeccable eyesight of the birds, whilst in other cases they will smoke the vulture brains, as they believe this will bring them good luck.

What can you do?

As always, the best thing that you can do is spread awareness on the issues surrounding the drastic declines in vulture populations around the world. The majority of people will not know about their decline, or about why it is so important for us to protect them. The main reason why the drastic decline of vultures is so devastating is because the loss of vultures will also lead to the loss of many other species.

In addition, you can support and donate to organisations that work to protect vultures in the wild, including monitoring their numbers and reducing their threats. These include VulPro, 4Vultures, Tusk, and BirdLife.

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Palm Oil: Destruction in Every Drop

In 2012 I travelled to Borneo for what was supposed to be a two week holiday, and ended up being a two and a half year stay. It was a hard place to leave. For the most part still undiscovered and light in tourism, Borneo is a hidden world of ancient jungle and some of the most unique wildlife on the planet.

For me it was love at first sight. Borneo felt like a spiritual home, a place where I could be myself, indulge in nature and live a life free from stress and worry. In my mind, it was pointless trying to imagine any other place that could rival the beauty of the untouched beaches and jungles we found there.

Then I discovered the dark side of Borneo. It started with our visit to a local orangutan sanctuary where we found out that the species, found only in Borneo and Sumatra, is critically endangered. We learned that there are a number of reasons for this, including logging and poaching. However, the reason that was most alarming and seemed to be causing the most damage was palm oil production. Orangutan conservation group The Orangutan Project state on their website that “Palm Oil Plantations are now the leading suppliers for a global market that demands more of the tree’s versatile oil for cooking, cosmetics, and biofuel. But palm oil’s appeal comes with significant costs. Palm oil plantations often replace tropical forests, killing endangered species, uprooting local communities, and contributing to the release of climate-warming gases. The orangutans that are displaced starve to death, are killed by plantation workers as pests, or die in the fires”.

It’s hard to imagine the rate at which palm oil deforestation is occurring, and in our corner of Malaysian Borneo we didn’t really see any signs of it. Surrounded by sprawling jungles and national parks, the scale of destruction seemed both unimaginable and a world away. That was until the next time we flew into Borneo following a holiday to Singapore. On our previous arrival I had seen the neat rows of what looked like manicured jungle stretching out across the landscape, but hadn’t given it a second thought. This time I knew exactly what I was looking at, and it broke my heart. What had once been primary forest, home to countless rare and exotic creatures, had been torn down and replaced by palm trees. Forever changing the landscape, and destroying the lives of its inhabitants in the process, big businesses had pillaged the land in the name of greed.

Malaysia and Indonesia are the leading producers of palm oil, with approximately 86% of the world’s product coming from the two countries. Unfortunately, the rate at which palm oil plantations are replacing jungle in the region is unsustainable. According to a study by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the rate of deforestation in Indonesia has grown rapidly due to the increased popularity of palm oil. In the 2007 UNEP publication “The Last Stand of the Orangutan“, it is stated: “A scenario released by UNEP in 2002 suggested that most natural rainforest in Indonesia would be degraded by 2032. Given the rate of deforestation in the past five years, and recent widespread investment in oil palm plantations and biodiesel refineries, this may have been optimistic. New estimates suggest that 98% of the forest may be destroyed by 2022.” In fact, according to the Orangutan Project, every hour 300 football fields of precious remaining forest is being ploughed to the ground across South East Asia to make way for palm oil plantations.

The thought of permanently losing the jungles of Malaysia and Indonesia is devastating. The current rates of deforestation are already killing 6000 orangutans per year. In an interview with the Independent last year, Greenpeace Chief Executive Alan Knight warned that “if the current destruction of the rainforest continues, then I have absolutely no hope that any orangutans will remain in the wild“. Asked how long they might survive, Mr Knight said: “I would probably say 10 years if we cannot stop the destruction. I think the Sumatran will go before then if they don’t sort out the situation they are in.”

The destruction of jungle in Borneo and Sumatra isn’t just devastating the habitats of orangutans, of course. Proboscis monkeys, Borneo pygmy elephants, Sumatran tigers, Malayan sun bears, Sumatran rhinos, mouse-deer and Sumatran elephants are just some of the rare and unique species being driven to extinction by this industry. Furthermore, the global impact is something that cannot be ignored. Fast becoming one of the leading causes of climate change, palm oil production is something that affects us all.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists: “when tropical forests are cleared to make way for oil palm plantations, carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas that is the leading cause of global warming; tropical deforestation accounts for about 10 percent of total global warming emissions. But precisely because tropical forests store large amounts of carbon—both in primary (old-growth) forests and secondary (disturbed and regenerating) forests—it is important to protect these lands from oil palm development.”

The palm oil industry has also been linked to a number of human rights violations including child labour in remote parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. In addition, although the industry has created jobs and arguably injected money into some communities; there have been numerous cases of governments allowing large corporations to seize the land on which indigenous people have lived and worked for thousands of years.

No industry that puts profits before the lives of humans, the welfare of animals and the survival of our planet should be supported. As consumers, we have a responsibility to take action against it.

Living in Borneo was an experience that I will always remember as one of the best times of my life. I’ll never forget the freedom and wonder I felt when trekking through the beautiful jungles, swimming in the crystal clear waterfalls and spotting the amazing wildlife. I hope that one day my young nieces and nephews will be able to visit the place I talk so fondly of, and experience what a truly magical place it is. The way things are currently going, that won’t be possible. The jungles I trekked in my twenties could be gone before my nephew reaches adulthood, the last orangutan already a distant memory. This is not the future I want, and it’s not a future any of us should be paying for.

What can I do?

Palm oil is the most commonly produced vegetable oil, and is now found in half of all supermarket products. From pizzas, bread, cakes and biscuits to hair products, body creams and makeup, palm oil is everywhere. Unless you eat an entirely whole food diet, and prepare all your own food at home, you almost definitely consume it at some point during your day. But don’t give up hope; identifying and avoiding the majority of products containing palm oil isn’t as hard as you might think.

As of December 2014 it has been a requirement under EU law to clearly label food products containing palm oil. Although this doesn’t extend to other items such as soaps and makeup, you can either contact the manufacturer or do a quick check on the internet. A handy guide to palm oil-free products can be found here. If you do decide to stop using a product because is contains palm oil, make sure you contact the manufacturer to let them know that’s what you are doing. It’s important to let companies know that we as consumers will not give our money to the palm oil industry.

As well as avoiding palm oil in the products we use, it’s also important to continue to put pressure on the governments and the industry leaders responsible for it’s production. It’s vital that we give our support to groups that work to encourage ethical and sustainable moves within the industry, and petition to bring in stronger laws for palm oil production. RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) is the largest sustainability-focused organisation in the industry. Since forming in 2004 they have gained recognition for their work in ensuring products carrying their label only contain palm oil obtained via sustainable methods. However, at this stage its standards do not ban deforestation or habitat destruction and their stamp of approval therefore does not guarantee an ethical product. That said, it is groups such as these that will make a difference within the industry so it’s important that we work on helping them reach better goals every year.

Finally, support charities such as The Orangutan Project by adopting an orangutan, volunteering, donating or joining their Palm Oil Resistance group. Other charities such as Rainforest Rescue support people on the ground planting trees in Indonesia to try and reforest the region.

However you decide to help, your efforts can, and will, make a difference.

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