With a seven-foot wingspan, hooked beak, and intense black stare, Africa's white-backed vulture is an imposing sight.
Perhaps it's no surprise that these critically endangered birds of prey have garnered far fewer conservation dollars than elephants and tigers. Science, too, has lagged behind. (Read why we need to save "revolting" vultures.)
Corinne Kendall is trying to change that.
The National Geographic Society grantee has started to pull back the curtain on this fascinating bird. She recently discovered that a single vulture flew more than 1,100 miles from its birthplace in Tanzania to South Africa and then back to Zimbabwe in just three months. (The two- or three-year-old male, nicknamed Swoop, even made a pitstop at a Botswana diamond mine.)
"Looking not just at vultures but really any terrestrial animal, it looks like it may be one of the longest dispersals ever discovered," says Kendall, who is also the associate curator of conservation and research at the North Carolina Zoo.
Have Wings, Will Travel
Plenty of land animals make long-distance migrations—think monarch butterflies in North America and wildebeest in the Serengeti—but dispersals represent a different behavior, because the animals do not come back.
Many vulture species disperse from their place of birth in search of food or mates, settling permanently in a new area, though few end up going as far as Swoop.
The North Carolina Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society have tracked 12 white-backed vultures since 2015. The solar-powered satellite tags—funded in part by the National Geographic Society—reveal most of these birds stayed more or less close to home.
While some of the study subjects continued to beam back movement data for up to two years, three of the tagged vultures died rather quickly, likely due to poisoned carcasses.
"If a cow is killed by lions or hyenas, people will go out and sprinkle pesticides onto the carcass and then those carnivores might come back and get poisoned," she says. (Related: "Lions, Hyena Killed With Poisoned Meat.")
But Swoop continues to beat the odds—as of February 1, Kendall reports he's still alive and well, moving back and forth on the border between South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.
"Vultures continue to fascinate me because they just keep pushing boundaries," says Kerri Wolter, founder of the South Africa-based vulture conservation organization VulPro. “As soon as we think we know something, another bird shows us differently.” (Learn why many of Africa's vultures are disappearing.)
Wolter has been following the movements of two other African species, the cape vulture and the white-headed vulture, and found that these animals also seem to go on far-flung walkabouts.
One white-headed vulture she released in South Africa sent its last coordinates from Angola, and seemed to be heading for the Democratic Republic of the Congo when its signal went dark.
Both Wolter and Kendall worry that such findings complicate prospects for conserving vultures, because you can't simply set up a protected area and expect the birds to stay put.
And that's not just bad news for the birds, it's bad for us. The scavengers are crucial ecosystem recyclers, and can even neutralize lethal microbes.
As vultures eat dead herbivores such as hippos, their stomach acid kills anthrax bacteria that could have been naturally consumed by the animal while it was alive. Anthrax-laced carcasses are dangerous to people because eating the contaminated meat can be lethal.
"We believe the vultures reduce the spread of anthrax as they can consume the disease without becoming infected," says Kendall. (See what it's like to be a vulture's lunch.)
In 2017, Kendall and colleagues' tagged vultures provided an even more practical purpose: The birds helped point staff in Tanzania's national parks to hippo carcasses during a recent anthrax outbreak. This allowed the personnel to destroy the carcasses before the bacteria could spread.
"People tend to think of them as kind of ugly birds," says Kendall, "but they're really pretty incredible."