I recently came across a group of white-backed vultures feeding on a zebra carcass in Kajiado, far away from any national park or game reserve. It reminded me of the fact that the ecosystem services these birds provide extend far beyond protected areas and they benefit people a lot more than we realize.
These birds have a bad reputation because they feed on dead and rotting animals but they are actually essential to the environment, our health and our economy. Their digestive system is so tough that they can eat animals with deadly diseases like anthrax and rabies without getting infected. Their stomach acids neutralize the pathogens. The result of this is that these diseases do not end up spreading to other animals.
Though we don’t realize or appreciate it, this service vultures provide saves us HUGE amounts of money in terms of the healthcare costs we would incur if these birds were not busy eating up dead wilds animals and livestock all over the landscape. India lost over 99% of its vulture population between 1993 and 2002. I was astounded when I recently learnt that this has led to the government spending over $36 BILLION (US DOLLARS !!!) in additional healthcare costs since then as increasing populations of rats and feral dogs spread diseases from unconsumed carcasses all over the country. Rotting carcasses also contaminate water sources utilized by people. The financial costs continue to add up as the vulture population is yet to recover.
Other scavengers like marabou storks, pied crows and hyenas are not as efficient at controlling disease and may even get infected themselves if the dead animal is infected with a very serious illness like anthrax. Domestic dogs can spread diseases from animal carcasses to livestock and people. Whereas a vulture’s metabolism neutralizes diseases, other scavengers become carriers of the disease. That’s because these other animals are only opportunistic scavengers. Spotted hyenas, for example, hunt for themselves and only scavenge when the opportunity arises. Research has shown that, typically, spotted hyenas obtain over 60% of their food by hunting for themselves. In some areas it’s close to 90%. Vultures on the other hand depend fully on scavenging to get food. They do not hunt like eagles or other birds of prey. Their bodies are adapted for life as full-time scavengers. Millions of years of evolution has crafted them into nature’s perfect ‘garbage disposal system’.Despite this important role of vultures, most vulture species are now in decline. Africa has lost a substantial amount of its vultures already and many species that were once abundant and common are now threatened with extinction. Most species are now listed as Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Poisoning by livestock owners is among the major cause of this. The poison is usually intended for large carnivores like lions, leopards and hyenas after they’ve killed livestock, but vultures and other animals also die when they feed on the poisoned carcass. As tough as vultures are, they can’t digest poison.
Nairobi National Park is one of East Africa’s most important remaining nesting sites for White-backed Vultures. The vultures that nest in the park and the Athi plains south of the park serve a huge area of southern Kenya including Kajiado, Machakos and Makueni counties. They also range west to Narok and the Masai Mara region and south into northern Tanzania. The Tsavo area also probably gets some vultures from NNP. Yet in spite of this, NNP is under threat of destruction from infrastructure projects like the SGR.
The value of the services provided by our wildlife and ecosystems (water flow regulation and flood control, pollination, minimization of soil erosion, carbon storage, disease control etc) needs to be realized and appreciated if we truly want to develop properly. Saving on infrastructure costs by choosing the ”cheapest route” for railways and roads only to spend many times that amount of money later on when you lose important ecosystem services doesn’t make any sense to me. We need to stop thinking of tourism as the only way that we benefit economically from wildlife and wild natural areas. The ecosystem services they provide us are in my view much more valuable.
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