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?

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

Vanishing vultures

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.

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.

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

“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

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.