Sometimes synonymous with death, vultures are often villainised by pop culture. Our beloved childhood Disney movies have time and again showed a gang of these purportedly evil birds flying in circles over a death-nearing character. And their bald heads, wrinkly necks and sinister features don’t help them salvage their reputations either.
Appearances aside, it’s true that as obligate scavengers, vultures do feed on dead animals. But they hardly have any morbid premonitions. Far from the bad guys they’re painted to be, these birds are actually heroes that have passively been fighting climate change all along!
Apart from being nature’s very own clean-up crew, vultures also help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, a new study revealed.
Left to their own devices, decaying corpses release carbon dioxide and methane — the greenhouse gases contributing to global warming. But by feeding on these bodies, vultures prevent these gases from getting emitted, as per the study.
Depending on the species, an individual vulture consumes anywhere from 0.2-1 kg of carcass daily. And each kilogram of a naturally-decomposing corpse generates around 0.86 kg of CO2 equivalent if left uneaten.
This estimate assumes that carcasses which the vultures do not consume are left to rot. However, many carcasses are composted or buried by humans, which produces more emissions than natural decay; therefore, vulture consumption can reduce emissions even further by substituting those techniques.
The averted emissions may not seem significant, but multiply them by the estimated 134 million to 140 million vultures worldwide, and that’s tens of millions of metric tonnes of carbon avoided per year!
In the Americas, vultures remove CO2 equivalent to around 12 million metric tonnes from the atmosphere annually. According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, that is as good as removing 2.6 million cars from the road each year. But while these figures are promising, they don’t speak for the entire world because vulture populations vary across the globe.
The steady decline in the birds’ numbers in Asia and Africa, in particular, has resulted in a loss of the services that vultures provide.
At a time like this, when climate change has the world in turmoil, we need every weapon in our arsenal to defeat the looming threats. And vultures could definitely make a powerful ally to fight by us. Granted, conserving vultures is not the entire solution, but it’s certainly a part of it.
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