Vanquished Vultures and Criminal Coyotes: Underappreciated Wildlife

Candice Gaukel Andrews February 23, 2016 17
Six species of African vultures—the continent’s largest and most recognizable birds of prey—are at risk of extinction. Poisoned baits by poachers and use of vulture body parts in traditional medicines are largely to blame. ©Eric Rock

Six species of African vultures—the continent’s largest and most recognizable birds of prey—are at risk of extinction. Poisoned baits placed by poachers and the market for vulture body parts in traditional medicines are largely to blame. ©Eric Rock

Poaching has pushed species of elephants and rhinos to the brink of extinction. Poachers are also bringing another type of animal to the edge of existence, but I bet you haven’t even heard of its imminent demise at their hands. I’m talking about vultures.

And while your neighbors may be the first ones to agree with you that the elephant ivory and rhino horn trade must stop, they might also be the first to petition their local authorities to remove the coyotes from their urban backyards and neighborhood parks.

When an animal is generally uncharismatic or misunderstood, do we care as much if they should disappear from the planet? And if the presence of a wild animal suddenly causes us to make changes in our daily routines, is the stance we take about their right to live side by side with us going to be different?

Vanishing vultures

Turkey vultures soar on thermals and use their keen sense of smell to find fresh carcasses. ©John T. Andrews

Turkey vultures soar on thermals and use their keen sense of smell to find fresh carcasses. ©John T. Andrews

Throughout the world, vultures provide an essential ecosystem service: they are our janitors, rapidly cleaning up and recycling dead animals. Unlike with some other scavengers, vultures’ highly evolved digestive systems allow them to eat diseased carcasses and not get sick. Without them, the flesh of rotting, dead animals would linger longer, insect populations would explode and diseases would spread to other wild creatures, livestock and people. Luckily for us, a flock of vultures can strip a carcass in a matter of minutes.

According to National Geographic, populations of eight of the African continent’s 11 vulture species have declined by an average of 62 percent during the last 30 years. Four species are now categorized as critically endangered and two as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. While habitat displacement due to rapid urbanization in parts of Africa and the massive growth of wind farms across the continent have taken a toll on the birds, poachers are delivering a double whammy. Some poachers target vultures for their parts, which can be sold for use in witchcraft or traditional medicines. Other poachers poison and kill them in an effort to throw off law enforcement, which use the circling birds as a beacon for illegal activity. Taken together, poisoning and trade in traditional medicines account for 90 percent of reported vulture deaths.

Coyotes often hunt for mice, cutting down on their population numbers. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Coyotes often hunt for mice, cutting down on rodent population numbers. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Since vultures breed slowly and need years to mature, it’s estimated that they could be extinct in Africa in the next 50 to 100 years.

“Criminal” coyotes

Just last week, in one of my local newspapers, The Cap Times, a cover article featured a story on the rise in coyote sightings in Madison, Wisconsin, my hometown. Urban coyotes have long been studied in cities such as Chicago. But this is one of the first times that my neighbors have noticed the uptick in these wild canids in their own backyards.

According to the article’s author, Steven Elbow, “A spate of attacks on pets last fall and a growing tendency for the predators to shadow early-morning dog walkers has put many on edge.” Some residents are calling for the coyotes’ removal. One person stated “being afraid to walk at dusk or early morning even by myself without a pet is not a way to live” and asked, “How long will it be before they start looking at the children?”

The truth is, coyotes prefer to avoid people. There have been only two documented cases of fatal coyote attacks in North America in recent history. Locally, there have been no reports of coyotes attacking humans, and there is not a single documented case of a coyote biting a person in the Chicago area—although 2,000 to 3,000 dog bites are reported there annually.

We need coyotes, and they need us to be their advocates. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

We need coyotes, and they need us to be their advocates. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Coyotes benefit us: they add to a city’s biodiversity and cut down on the numbers of mice, rats and moles that might otherwise boom. They also remind us that we haven’t totally eradicated the wild from our lives, despite our best efforts.

I know it’s exhausting to be asked over and over again to care about elephants and tigers, rhinos and polar bears. It’s tiring—and even more difficult—to open our hearts to vultures and coyotes, traditionally considered “vermin.”

But perhaps the next time you choose an animal to “adopt” or a plush toy to buy a child, you might consider a coyote or a vulture. We need them in the network of life on Earth, and they need some of us, their human advocates, more than ever.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,


P.S. Earlier this month, on February 9, 2016, I wrote to you about the Texas teenager, Trey Joseph Frederick, who shot two whooping cranes and was to face charges under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It has just been announced that the case will be re-filed under the Endangered Species Act, which increases the likelihood of larger penalties for the crime.


  1. Dave Braunschweig April 16, 2016 at 2:53 pm - Reply

    I truly believe everything has its place and beneficial in their own way, big or small. We might not enjoy some of the creatures at times but none the less they’re part of life. Sure times have changed for a number of them so people think they have no value … that’s here nor there … what makes you right? We’ll just never reach a certain percentage. Why … cause they just don’t care unfortunately. Misinformed or not.

  2. Spencer Brookes April 16, 2016 at 2:52 pm - Reply

    State of New Hampshire, USA Department of Wildlife is in the process of getting approval for hunting Bob Cats. Their number are now at a level where they can be seen after a number of years of bounty hunting and near extinction. I agree with Matthew.

  3. Matthew Armes April 16, 2016 at 2:51 pm - Reply

    I feel that this topic has much in common with predator persecution, often driven by fearful and misinformed members of the public.

  4. Thomas Nesler April 16, 2016 at 2:51 pm - Reply

    When hunting and trapping transitioned from a sustenance-based activity to a more recreational based sport, the inclination to use some species of wildlife as live targets seemed to grow,. This has been supported by our misguided notions of predator and pest control. Probably every child that has learned to use guns for hunting has gone through a phase of shooting live targets, but the ethical imperative to only harvest wildlife that you intend to use for food or reasonable economic benefit takes over as the child matures and mentorship/peer influence is established.

  5. Melania Padilla April 16, 2016 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    True!! They are so valuable!

  6. Judy Hoy April 16, 2016 at 2:49 pm - Reply

    Even as a child, I loved the underdogs, that people killed for no good reason where I grew up, like coyotes, badgers, Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, porcupine, skunks and cute little weasels. GHOW and RTHA are now protected, but people still kill the mammals whenever they see them. I hardly ever see a badger or a weasel any more, the skunk population is declining and the porcupine population has crashed here in Western Montana, where I live now. I wish that people could be more caring and live and let live. If all the other animals go extinct, humans will last only a couple of months. If all the insect eating birds go extinct, humans will last only about 6 months. If all the bees and other pollinators go extinct, humans will last a while, but not have a very good variety of food to eat and when the other mammals and birds that need the fruits and berries, etc. to survive go down the tube, humans will likely soon follow. I would think that we would have a bit more foresight.

  7. Susan Sharma April 16, 2016 at 2:02 pm - Reply

    When you appreciate the web of life, no animal is vermin. Unfortunately our obsession with beauty in the human world extends to the animal world too.

  8. Dr. Pat Condy April 16, 2016 at 1:49 pm - Reply

    Interesting how wildlife that walks, flies or swims, and that sucks blood and/or eats meat tends to elicit a negative reaction, even disgust and fear, from people especially the urban society.

  9. Frank Heinen April 16, 2016 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    No, the unnecessary killing of vultures and coyotes brings out the same feelings in me as the brutal slaughter of rhinos and elephants. In fact, I often have a soft spot for misunderstood animals with a huge ecological value like vultures, snakes, sharks and bats. And I absolutely agree with Melody’s observations on vultures.

  10. Melody Bell Wilkes April 16, 2016 at 1:46 pm - Reply

    Let’s put a good word in for vultures – the ultimate garbage men. I can’t help but get excited when I see vultures overhead circling or corral at a carcass. I find them to be extremely smart, much smarter than hawks and owls. I know because I cared for non-releasable birds of prey at a science museum for 15 years. Our Turkey vulture was the quickest to learn. He was trained to fly in an IMAX theater and comical in his antics knowing how to encourage the keeper for more food. Their digestion and sense of smell is beyond any other raptor. Thoughtful, intuitive, inquisitive and a truly charismatic character that deserves our respect and protection not repulsion.

  11. Bill McGuire April 16, 2016 at 1:45 pm - Reply

    Coyotes are very adaptable habitat generalists with good reproductIve vigor. If they discover easy ways to get a meal then they will repeat and repeat to feed. They are creatures of habit and often predictable. Those that discover livestock will go back again and again until they are stopped. Removing an occasional individual from local populations is often all that is needed. People find vultures repulsive but they (and coyotes) are very necessary to clean up carrion. I consider species that become invasive outside their native ecosystem to be nuisances (feral hogs, python, nutria, cane toad, are some that can be.

  12. Bryan Dagaye April 16, 2016 at 1:33 pm - Reply

    Hyenas too

  13. Alex Krevitz April 16, 2016 at 1:33 pm - Reply

    I am always impressed by.their adaptability in spite of constant persecution.

  14. Rosie Clegg April 16, 2016 at 1:25 pm - Reply

    The issues are appalling in Africa due to vultures ability of finding carcasses they can be targeted at an alarming rate with poisoning of poached carcasses !
    Recently I have studied vultures and learning how ecologically important surprised me! This is a species that needs to be conserved, their disease control is incredible following the Asian vulture crisis caused by Diclofenac led to many increased disease rates of rabies and things like canine distemper ! The same issue is faced in Europe now – you may find this a very interesting research subject on vultures (if you don’t already know). This petition gives the background!

  15. Phil Loseth March 7, 2016 at 8:20 am - Reply

    In Saskatchewan the coyote at one time was classified as a fur-bearing animal subject to provincial legislation, i.e. harvesting coyotes required a trappers license and harvesting could only be done during a designated season. With low fur prices the coyote population increased to the point that there was so much livestock and pet predation that the law was changed (no licence required, year-round harvesting allowed). Even without regulation, the coyote population remains high. I appreciate the coyote’s role in the ecosystem, but I don’t see any need for additional protection for coyotes (unlike elephants, rhinos, and Canada’s woodland caribou).

  16. Joseph Jones Ogwal March 4, 2016 at 7:20 am - Reply

    Another challenge for vultures are medical residues, especially antibiotics. some reports suggests that their bladders are corroded by continuous ingestion of antibiotics especially in animal wastes or contaminated waste and could be a cause for big fatalities in urban centers (especially cities with poor waste disposal and confinement). I don’t know how true it is.

  17. Norman Doak February 26, 2016 at 1:27 am - Reply

    At last I find someone championing the rights of “scavengers” which are so necessary in cleaning the left-over remains of the regal hunters, be they man or animal. Our African jackal is a much-maligned and persecuted animal by those who have no idea of their value to the environment and the removal of animals that do damage or carry diseases like rats, mice etc. Norman Doak Johannesburg South Africa

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