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Vultures: The Hero of the Savannah

As with many scientists and conservationists, it was saddening to learn this week that more than 100 hippos died in a remote part of Namibia, in what is believed to be an outbreak of the anthrax bacterium. The death of the hippos was confirmed by the countries Environment minister, which is understood to have happened in the remote Bwabwata National Park, located in the north-east of Namibia. According to the Deputy Director for Namibia’s national parks (Mr Apollinaris Kannyinga), the outbreak was likely caused by low water levels in the Kavano River. Although the news in itself it sad, not least because hippos are amazing and wonderful animals, but the loss of so many animals represents a real blow for Namibia’s hippo population, which stood at 1300 animals prior to the outbreak. It was for this reason that the incident was picked by the British press at the start of the week, as reported in the Independent and Guardian.

It was whilst reading the various press releases that I recalled the contents of a BBC documentary (Vultures: Beauty in the Beast), which was made by well-known naturalist (Charlie Hamilton James) and was televised, most recently, in May this year. It was towards the end of his programme that Charlie focussed upon the vital role that vultures play in reducing the spread of infections and disease across the savannah, by consuming (in short pace) dead animals, thereby limiting the spread of disease in the wider countryside.

Although there is no current link between declining vulture populations and the death of a large number of hippos in north-east Namibia, the relationship between vultures and their role in preventing the spread of disease is well-known within the scientific community. Interestingly, a quick search of the internet found an article in the Namibian newspaper ‘New Era’ dating back to 2014, which covered a story about the threat to vulture populations (in Namibia) from cross-border poisoning, specifically, lappet-face, white-backed, white-headed and the hooded vultures, which are endangered (note: the Cape and the Egyptian vultures are already extinct). So perhaps it’s not that far-fetched to suggest there might be a link between declining vulture populations and the outbreak of such a deadly disease in the Bwabwata National Park.

Video Credit: Namibian Broadcasting Corporation

Image Credit: BBC Natural History

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