National Geographic : 2016 Jan
96 national geographic • january 2016 binoculars to his eyes. “ You certainly couldn’t spend this long watching a lion.” Hours pass, the bloody players come and go: hyenas, jackals, storks, scavenging eagles, and four species of vulture. Despite the apparent hysteria, everyone gets a chance, partitioning the carcass in time and space according to social status and physical ability. Both Thomsett and Ogada, who often collab- orate, have spent much time pondering what would happen if vultures were subtracted from this cast of characters. Running field exper- iments with goat carcasses over a two-year period, Ogada learned that in the absence of vultures, carcasses took nearly three times as long to decompose, the number of mammals visiting carcasses tripled, and the amount of time these animals stayed at the carcass also nearly tripled. Why do these data matter? Because the lon- ger jackals, leopards, lions, hyenas, genets, mon- gooses, and dogs commune with one another at a carcass, the more likely they are to spread pathogens—which die in vulture stomachs—to other animals, both wild and domesticated. By eating wildebeest placenta, Thomsett tells me from his perch in the jeep, vultures also prevent cattle from contracting malignant catarrh, an often fatal herpes virus. And by reducing car- casses to bones within hours, they suppress insect populations, linked with eye diseases in both people and livestock. “ Vultures are more important, in terms of services to humanity, than the ‘big five’ that everyone comes here to see,” he says. Their loss, scientists believe, would likely set off an ecolog- ical and economic catastrophe. Although poisoning is the proximate driver of Africa’s vulture decline, the plain-speaking Thomsett stresses its root cause: too many peo- ple. Kenya’s population is expected to reach 81 million, from today’s 44 million, by 2050. And the Maasai are among the fastest growing groups in the country. Sprinkled on carrion, a few ounces of the insecticide carbofuran (above) can kill a hundred vultures. Poisoned birds that are caught quickly or haven’t consumed too much may be saved if given a dose of the drug atropine and fed charcoal, which absorbs the poison. At right, a white-backed vulture recovers at the VulPro facility. The bird was later released.