Ecosystem service provision – what do vultures do for us and the environment?

Γυπαετός / Bearded Vulture © Weyrichfoto / VCF

What are ecosystem services and how do birds provide them?

Ecosystem services are defined as the contributions that ecosystems (i.e. living systems) make to human well-being, according to the European Environment Agency’s Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES). Essentially, they directly or indirectly support our survival and quality of life.

There are three main types of ecosystem service:

Provisioning services are the products obtained from ecosystems such as food, fresh water, wood, fibre, genetic resources and medicines.

Regulating and maintaining services are defined as the benefits obtained from the regulation and maintenance of ecosystem processes such as climate regulation, natural hazard regulation, water purification and waste management, pollination or pest control.

Cultural services include non-material benefits that people obtain from ecosystems such as spiritual enrichment, intellectual development, recreation and aesthetic values.

The ecosystem services provided by birds arise from their ecosystem functions. Their ability to fly makes birds highly mobile and able to respond to changes in the availability of essential resources such as food and habitats. This mobility and their diverse morphology and ecology means that birds live on all continents, foraging in terrestrial, aquatic and aerial environments, and therefore play important roles in maintaining ecosystem function throughout the world. Through their roles at different levels of complex food-webs birds therefore provide many important ecosystem functions. When those functions benefit humans, birds provide ecosystem services.

Examples of “direct” or provisioning ecosystem services provided by wild birds include the use of “eider down” for insulation in jackets and sleeping bags; seabird “guano” (excrement) for fertiliser; and the harvesting of puffins in Iceland, sooty shearwaters in New Zealand or passerines in central and southern Europe for human consumption. 

In terms of cultural services, humans and birds have a long history of interactions dating back thousands of years, as evidenced by cave paintings and murals created by ancient civilizations. Birds often have symbolic values and important roles in mythology and religion for many different cultures.

One of the most important cultural services provided by birds in modern times comes in the form of recreation and tourism, especially the growing pastime of birdwatching. Birdwatching is an international industry that can be a significant source of income through the publication and sale of bird guide books, the employment of local guides, and all of the activities associated with local and global ecotourism. The income from birdwatching can often exceed other local industries that rely on natural resources. For example, it has been shown that the 14,000 bird-watchers visiting the Białowieża Forest in Poland each year spend 66% more than other visitors, spend longer in the area and generate USD 2.2 million of local income, which is in stark contrast to the loss-making forestry industry.

Πυρόχρους Γύπας / Griffon Vulture © Bruno Berthemy / VCF

The majority of the ecosystem services provided by birds are in the regulating and maintaining category, with the most well-known and widely-studied being pollination, seed dispersal and plant dispersal, all of which are vital to maintaining ecosystem processes and ultimately promoting biodiversity and benefitting human health. One clear example of how birds can provide a regulating service to humans, with associated economic benefits, is derived from their ecological role as consumers of pest species which can damage agricultural crops. In Israel the use of artificial nest boxes boosted the population of Barn Owls and Kestrels close to agricultural fields which reduced populations of rodents which would otherwise consume crops such as Lucerne. This not only boosted profits through increased yields, it also reduced economic costs and environmental contamination by eliminating the need to use rodenticides (rodent poison). These efforts are currently being replicated by BirdLife Cyprus.  

It is becoming more widely acknowledged that one of the most critical roles of birds in stabilizing food webs in ecosystems, and thus providing important ecosystem services to humans, is derived from their role as scavengers, and vultures are among the most efficient scavengers of them all.

What ecosystem services do vultures provide, and why do we need them?

Obligate scavengers (i.e. those that survive solely from eating dead animals) such as Griffon Vultures consume large amounts of carrion derived from animal carcasses, maintaining the transfer of energy through food webs and supporting important ecosystem services such as nutrient recycling, removal of soil and water contaminants and regulating the development and spread of diseases and populations of facultative scavengers such as foxes.

Recent studies have shown that vultures provide an efficient, cost-effective and environmentally beneficial carcass disposal service which is positively valued by livestock farmers. For example, in Spain it has been demonstrated that exploiting the ability of Griffon Vultures to rapidly consume livestock carcasses would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions (by 77,344 metric tons of CO2 eq.) and economic costs ($50 million in insurance payments) arising from the collection and transport of carcasses to processing plants by vehicles.

As vultures are specialized for rapidly locating and consuming carcasses they have a competitive advantage over terrestrial species such as foxes. In the absence of vultures it has been shown that populations of feral dogs and other facultative scavengers can increase, potentially increasing the development and transmission of diseases such as rabies. While vultures are likely help to limit disease transmission at carcasses, further work on this topic is urgently required.     

Μαυρόγυπας / Cinereous Vulture © Bruno Berthemy / VCF

Vultures also provide cultural and spiritual services dating back thousands of years, as well as recreational services in the form of ecotourism, particularly for bird-watchers and photographers. For example, it has been estimated that the potential value of viewing Griffon Vultures at a nature reserve in Israel was more than US$1 million, and that 85% of the visitors went to the park specifically to view vultures. There are many other examples of the potential value of ecotourism around vulture breeding areas and feeding sites as important sources of local income (e.g. southern Africa; Spain; South America). Therefore, as tourism in Cyprus generates €2.7 billion annually and contributes 15% towards the GDP, the projected increase in the Griffon Vulture population through the LIFE with Vultures project could provide an additional boost to local economies if some of the four million visitors each year can be engaged in vulture watching and photography.

It is now widely acknowledged that promoting the scavenging services provided by vultures would restore an important ecological function for the mutual benefit of vultures, the wider environment and ultimately provide socio-economic and well-being benefits to people. We hope that the LIFE with Vultures project will provide the foundations for this in Cyprus.

How we will be investigating ecosystem service provision by Griffon Vultures in Cyprus

As part of the project’s preparatory actions we aim to improve our understanding of the benefits of Griffon Vultures for ecosystem functioning and human well-being in Cyprus to strengthen support for planned conservation actions. We will develop a conceptual model to demonstrate how Griffon Vultures could potentially interact with the environment and human activities in Cyprus and how these interactions would influence ecosystem services and human well-being. We will also quantify how much carrion Griffon Vultures would consume at different population levels and how this could provide environmental and economic benefits compared to existing livestock disposal practices. Finally, we will estimate the potential contribution (qualitative and quantitative) of restoring Griffon Vultures to their main breeding sites in Cyprus for ecotourism.

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