Vultures Are Revolting. Here’s Why We Need to Save Them.

The scavengers do the dirty work of cleaning up after death. With their numbers plummeting, we’re learning how much we need to keep them alive.

AT SUNSET THE WILDEBEEST SEEMS DOOMED: Sick or injured, it’s wandering miles from its herd on the Serengeti Plain of Tanzania. By sunrise the loner is dead, draped in a roiling scrum of vultures, 40 or so birds searching for a way to invade its earthly remains. Some of the scavengers wait patiently, with a Nixonian hunch, eyes on their prize. But most are engaged in gladiatorial battle. Talons straining, they rear and rake, joust and feint. One pounces atop another, then bronco rides its bucking and rearing victim. The crowd parts and surges in a black-and-brown wave of undulating necks, stabbing beaks, and thrashing wings. From overhead, a constant stream of new diners swoops in, heads low, bouncing and tumbling in their haste to join the mob.

Why the fuss over a carcass so large? Why the unseemly greed? Because the wildebeestis tough-skinned and wasn’t killed by carnivores, it lacks an opening wide enough for general admission. And so the boldest birds compete furiously for access. As the crowd cackles and caws, a white-backed vulture snakes its head deep into the wildebeest’s eye socket and hurriedly slurps, with grooved tongue, whatever it can before being ripped from its place at the table. Another white-backed tunnels into a nostril while a Rüppell’s vulture starts at the other end; it’s eight inches into the wildebeest’s anus before another bird wrenches it away, then slithers its own head, like an arm into an evening glove, up the intestinal tract. And so it goes—40 desperate birds at five golf-ball-size holes.

Eventually, two lappet-faced vultures make their move. These spectacular-looking animals stand more than a yard tall, with wingspans of nine feet. (In treetops, they make stick nests as big as king-size beds.) Their faces are pink, their bills large and deeply arched, and their powerful necks festooned with crepey roseate skin and a brown Tudor ruff. While one lappet hammers a hole in the wildebeest’s shoulder, the other excavates behind a sinus, in hopes of finding juicy botfly larvae. Sinews and skin snap. Now a white-backed rams its head down the wildebeest’s throat and yanks out an eight-inch length of trachea, ribbed like a vacuum hose. But before the vulture can enjoy it, the four-foot-tall marabou stork that’s been stiffly lurking snatches the windpipe away, tosses it once for perfect alignment, and swallows it whole. Thanks to the labors of the lappets, which favor sinew over muscle, the wildebeest is now wide open. Heads fling blood and mucus into the air; viscera drip from vulture bills; two birds play tug-of-war with a ten-foot rope of intestine coated in dirt and feces.

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