Vultures at Muncaster
Muncaster Hawk & Owl Centre is home to two critically endangered hooded vultures (necrosyrtes monachus). You may even have found this web page after meeting them on your recent visit to Muncaster! Read on to find out why our vulture ambassador duo, MightyMite and Moriarty, are so vital to our work at MHOC …
Vultures fill a vital ecological niche. They are obligate scavengers – this means they have a diet entirely made up of carrion (dead animals). By consuming a carcass, vultures can eliminate it as a potential harbour for disease and bacteria. The birds have several adaptions which allow them to safely eat carrion – including their iconic bald head, which allows them to reach inside a carcass to eat without getting feathers clogged up on their face and neck, and their strong stomach acid which breaks down bacteria which may be lethal to other animals.
Vultures are also an important indicator species – it means that the health of vulture populations is a biological reflection on the health of the ecosystem.
Vultures in the wild & why vulture populations are declining
There are 23 species of vultures which are split into two groups – Old World vultures and New World vultures.
In Africa, the illegal poaching of mammals such as rhinoceros and elephants is prevalent. As vultures move in to clean up the carcasses of these animals, they can often act as a beacon to gamekeepers and park rangers which will use the vultures to locate poached animals. The poachers, in attempt to cover their tracks, will often lace the body of the poached animal with lethal poisons to kill the vultures. One poisoned elephant carcass can poison hundreds of vultures.
- Death from manmade structures
Vultures use their huge wingspan to soar and cover vast areas of land. The birds often find themselves in danger around power lines and wind turbines, unaware of the danger of these manmade structures pose as they soar near the structures.
In some parts of Africa, vultures are trapped, killed and their body parts (particularly vulture eyes and brain) are used for witchcraft and spells, which the users believe will help them see into the future or bring good luck.
The drug diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory non-steroidal drug which is used in human medicine as well as veterinary medicine is highly toxic to vultures. In Asia, diclofenac has been used to treat lame cattle. If they perish with the drug still present in their bodies and a vulture consumes contaminated meat it can kill the bird within 48 hours. Diclofenac has since been banned, but the aftermath of its effects are still a great cause for conservation concern as 99% of the Asian vulture population has been wiped out.
- Habitat loss
Habitat loss is another factor for decline of vultures. This can take place through intensive farming practices and disruption at nest sites caused by humans and human activities, often resulting in local vulture populations being pushed from their habitats.
What we can do about it
- Captive breeding programmes
One of the most important things we can do within zoological organisations is to create a healthy gene pool amongst captive vultures. With the additional use of studbooks, we can pair up unrelated individuals in hopes that they will breed and further add to this gene pool. This is a critical part of the work that zoos collectively do to safeguard the future of endangered raptors.
Vultures take many years to reach maturity and reproduce slowly, often only raising one chick every 1-2 years. This is another reason why wild breeding vultures are unable to sustain the current population declines in the wild, making each young vulture produced in captivity all the more precious.
- Raise awareness/education
As a small part of the wider zoological and scientific community, we are dedicated to raising awareness of global conservation efforts. Education is critical to the conservation work that we support. Our main way of educating visitors about the dangers that vultures face is via our educational flying displays.
- Poison response kits
We work with the Hawk Conservancy Trust and raise funds to support their work of developing poison response kits, equipment which helps with damage-control on poisoned carcasses to limit the toxins spreading through the rest of the food chain.
- Vulture safe zones/vulture restaurants
A vulture restaurant is a safe feeding site for vultures and other scavenging raptors. Meat free of poison is placed out for the vultures to feed, encouraging the birds to regularly feed at these safe zones.
The conservation and research of vultures is in need of funding to continue the work towards saving these birds in the wild. These funds can come from government grants, fundraising or just a small donation from an individual just like you.