Nature’s Clean Up Crew by Emma McLachlan
I stand in a beautiful wildflower meadow, the bumblebees are working hard and the summer chatter of swallows is everywhere. At the foot of the meadow proudly stands Muncaster Castle and looming in the background is Scafell Pike. It is everything and more you could expect from an estate in the Lake District. What may surprise you however, is that in this very English meadow, are two very African hooded vultures who go by the names of Moriarty and MightyMite.
The endangered birds are essential to our mission here at Muncaster Hawk and Owl Centre. It is our very purpose to influence every visitor to go home feeling provoked about birds and their conservation. As a centre, we were established only in 2015 with help from the Hawk Conservancy Trust – leaders in raptor education, conservation and research.
Like all of the birds I have the pleasure to work with, the vultures each have a unique personality and individual needs. This soon becomes apparent after spending any amount of time with them. MightyMite is the most cheeky bird, always up to tricks and I’m convinced he laughs at me some days. Moriarty on the other hand is full of gentle charm, he’s beautiful and clever – he carries a lot of wisdom behind those piercing brown eyes.
When you meet a vulture for the first time, you may be surprised by how beautiful these birds actually are, despite often being portrayed as the opposite. MightyMite and Moriarty work together in our educational demonstrations, along with a team of African yellow billed kites, so we can introduce our visitors to the world of scavengers.
And no matter whether you love them or hate them, scavengers fill a vital ecological niche. By consuming carrion, vultures clean up the environment, helping to keep it free of disease. Vultures have several physical designs that are unique amongst other avifauna. An important feature of a vulture is their iconic bald heads – when they are up to their necks (literally!) inside a carcass, the post-dinner wash up process is much easier as there are no feathers to worry about! Vultures have many features, like the bald head, which help them to carry out their jobs as nature’s clean up crew efficiently.
Still, despite being one of the most important groups of animals in the world, vultures are widely persecuted. They are trapped in Africa and their body parts are used for a form of witchcraft known as Muti. Poachers will poison vultures to prevent the birds alerting rangers to the body of an illegally poached animal. Vultures often struggle to adapt to man made structures such as wind turbines and power lines and they suffer from habitat loss. Thus, it will come as no surprise to learn that our beloved hooded vultures have been uplisted from a conservation status of ‘least concern’ to ‘critically endangered’ since 2009.
It is 2017. This has to stop.
I truly believe the world needs good zoos to support the fight for our wildlife. Zoos have the power to make a significant difference to conservation and research. Muncaster’s bird team works towards instilling a lifelong love for nature, especially in young people, and this in itself is critical to our work. To inspire just one person to care more about wildlife could be giving an individual the opportunity to save a species.
Education is the most powerful tool we have to change the world, and vulture education is my favourite kind.
In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.
– Baba Dioum