The shopkeeper handed me a machete, and challenged me to a sword fight. Our blades clashed a few times as we stared each other down, before collapsing into laughter. These are the kind of antics to expect from a Portuguese hardware store. I was on another conservation adventure, in Portugal, working with biologists to support the local vulture population. We needed tools to carve a mountain of meat, to feed these neglected necrophages.
Eduardo drove the land rover. He was a brooding, serious man at first, but turned out to have a great sense of humour. His partner, Pedro, struck a lighter tone, gracing every room he stepped into with his warm charisma and perpetual banter. I was the curious volunteer, following along and asking way too many questions.
Now we had our machetes, it was time to collect the meat. We made a handy deal with the local supermarkets: we would collect their expired produce, saving them the cost of disposal, and us from buying it. An employee came out in full protective gear, pushing a bin full of body parts. We hauled the remains on to our trailer, and were off.
The jeep left the smooth road and joined a bumpy dirt trail, which shook us like an earthquake. The arid land was abandoned apart from a few ancient houses and chapels: a veritable safari. We approached the feeding area, a dusty square with a high fence all around, that ensured this pop-up restaurant would be birds-only. Already a handful of vultures were circling above, spotting the jeep and knowing exactly what it meant.
The boys got to work installing the camera trap, using a shoddy piece of rope to tie it to a post. The shutter was motion sensitive, and would hopefully capture every animal that passed before it, be that vulture, bird of prey or mammal; one time it photographed a golden eagle.
Now was the fun part. We unloaded the meat, cutting the large pieces into manageable bites with our machetes. We smashed the bones with a sledgehammer, so the vultures could access the tasty bone marrow. It was morbid work, since in the stash there were intact pig heads, boasting eyes and half a brain. The eyes still had a semblance of sentience, so destroying them required dissociation. My body went through the motions, while my mind was gallivanting in an English meadow; anywhere but here.
Until now the work had been tolerable, but it was time to scatter the meat from another barrel, which had been marinating in the sun for a week. It smelled like death. Eduardo removed the lid, and inside were thousands of maggots, squirming as one. Rolling the barrel in front of the camera, we tipped the contents onto the ground. The juice came first, followed by a festering pile of rancid meat. With gloves on, we scattered the chunks manually, collecting a handful of maggots in the process. After a few minutes of horror I realised we didn’t need to use our hands; we could have used shovels. “Next time”, Eduardo said.
A Reason for the Madness
From our limited human perspective, maggots are disgusting. But to one species, they are a delicacy: the Egyptian vulture. This small, off-white bird is unique, as they are the only vulture that uses tools, cracking open eggs with stones- an excellent party trick. In ancient Egypt they were revered, and anyone who dared kill one would be executed. Nowadays they are less protected. Endangered globally, they are threatened by loss of habitat, poisoning by farmers, electrocution by power lines, and lack of food. Their thin beaks are adapted to peck leftover morsels and maggots from corpses- making them a crucial part of nature’s clean up process. More on that later.
The Storm Cloud
While we were butchering, word had spread around town. The rotting smell had drifted through the wind, catching the attention of some nearby vultures. Other birds saw their friends and joined the party, and in this way the crowd grew exponentially, until a dark cloud formed a hundred strong. It was dominated by griffons: brown vultures with 3 metre wingspans, and then there were Egyptians, black kites and ravens. It was an ominous ensemble, circling like a tornado, waiting for the moment to strike.
As soon as we shut the gate, the giants descended, lowering their talons like the landing gear of a plane. They grabbed whatever they could and took off, before the next bird arrived. It was a dazzling display of colour and flapping wings, a swooping spectacle, bringing me closer to these animals than I ever expected to be. The awe I felt made it all worth it.
As is always the case with conservation work, we were attempting to fix problems created by humans before us. With the explosion of mad cow disease in the early 2000’s, European law required that farmers remove the carcasses of their cattle and incinerate them. This was disastrous for the vultures, who depend on large carrion for their diet. Twenty years later, the disease is under control, but in Portugal this unnecessary regulation remains. That’s why we stepped in here, supplementing their diet to give them a fighting chance.
Vultures are not sexy, let’s face it, but they play a critical role in the health of our ecosystems. By gorging on decaying animal matter, they burn the pathogens inside with their sizzling stomach acid, acting as nature’s clean-up crew. Just as you would be foolish to fire your garbage men, when you mess with vultures you pay the price.
Nowhere was this more evident than in India. Three species of vulture- from ingesting a drug given to cattle- suffered a decline of over 97% between 1992-2007. This was quoted as “the fastest decline of any bird species ever reported anywhere in the world.” The vulture vacuum created a huge opportunity for rats and dogs to become the dominant scavengers, but they are far less efficient at destroying pathogens. They multiplied and proliferated disease, contributing to a rabies epidemic. The loss of vultures is estimated to have caused 50,000 human deaths.
This story illustrates that we are not separate from nature, and depend on our ecosystems as much as any other animal. Conservation can be shallow sometimes, with a fixation on protecting the adorable species and not much else. But it is far more important than that. Each animal plays a role in maintaining the balance of our interconnected world, with the loss of one piece affecting ten others. Look beyond the polar bears and the red pandas, and consider the ugly creatures, too. The insects and spiders, the maggots and mosquitoes, are all fundamental to life as we know it. But we won’t know how much we need them until they’re gone.
Thank you to to the kind people at ATNatureza, for the camera trap photos and amazing volunteering experience. They are a non-profit managing a pioneering nature reserve called Faia Brava, check them out with the link below.