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Protecting nature’s waste managers

Published online 28 May 2019

Arabian Gulf countries are a vulture stronghold. Efforts are needed to keep it that way, say conservationists.1  

Michael McGrady, Tariq Al Amri and Andrew Spalton

The adult Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is a globally endangered species that has a mutualistic relationship with humans, regularly feeding on anthropogenic waste.
The adult Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is a globally endangered species that has a mutualistic relationship with humans, regularly feeding on anthropogenic waste.
Michael McGrady
Countries in the Arabian Peninsula, such as Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, are apparent strongholds for vultures, including the Lappet-faced vulture Torgos tracheliotos and the Egyptian vulture Neophron percnopterus, whose populations are seemingly stable or growing2 3 4 . These countries are also important for migrating scavenging birds, including the endangered Steppe eagles Aquila nipalensis, which move to the region every winter5 6 .  

As nature’s waste managers, avian scavengers provide free consumption of biological waste, which can be a vector for diseases and can encourage the expansion of other scavengers, such as feral dogs that can carry rabies7 . 

Based on counts at rubbish dumps8 9 10 , tens of thousands of kilograms of waste are consumed by scavenging birds each year at just a few sites in Oman and Yemen. The conservation of scavenging birds serves human interests by enabling their provision of this valuable ecosystem service. This is true in the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere.

Scavenging birds found in Europe, Africa and Asia – particularly vultures – are under great conservation pressure11 12 . The threats they face vary from country to country, but include targeted and inadvertent poisoning, electrocution, declines in food, and use of body parts in belief-based medicine. These threats have, in turn, caused catastrophic population declines, and have pushed some species to become critically endangered13 .  

The reasons for the healthy conservation status of scavenging birds in much of the Arabian Peninsula vary geographically, but are likely linked to safe food from anthropogenic sources, abundant safe nesting places, low levels of dangerous electricity infrastructure, and relatively low levels of the toxins and pollutants that have been a big threat to populations in India and surrounding countries14 15 .  

Egyptian vultures benefit from the food that is available around human activity, while we benefit from the waste disposal services they provide. This mutualism is evident in places like Socotra Island in Yemen9 2 and Masirah Island in Oman10 3 , where world-best breeding densities occur while traditional livestock, agricultural and fishing practices have persisted. Mutualism between vultures and man can also be seen around more modern human communities, such as near Muscat, Oman, where municipal waste is managed at a modern engineered landfill, and where extraordinary numbers of Egyptian vultures feed on a daily basis8 . 

Globally endangered Steppe eagles (Aquila nipalensis), Abdim’s stork (Cincona abdimii), and House crows (Corvus splendens) feeding at a waste disposal site. Collectively, avian scavengers consume large amounts of waste. 
Globally endangered Steppe eagles (Aquila nipalensis), Abdim’s stork (Cincona abdimii), and House crows (Corvus splendens) feeding at a waste disposal site. Collectively, avian scavengers consume large amounts of waste. 
Michael McGrady
However, the Arabian Peninsula's Egyptian vultures are facing a changing environment with threats on the horizon. Food availability is changing as anthropogenic consumption and waste management change16 . The threat of electrocution is increasing as power distribution networks expand. 

While the human-led changes have the potential to affect vulture populations negatively, many can be mitigated, overcome or even turned positive by effective planning. Additionally, factoring vultures into strategies can reduce the costs of waste management, because vultures consume some waste. Arab Gulf countries are still developing, so new infrastructure can be built to be vulture-friendly from the outset, and waste management can be planned to ensure that food for vultures remains safely available. These are real opportunities.

Given the rapid development in Arabia, and the region’s importance to beneficial resident and migrating scavenging birds, it is both sensible and self-serving to conserve scavenging birds there. This is what we are advocating. Conservation efforts can be implemented via forward planning rather than remedial work, suggesting that such efforts can be cost-effective or even save money. 

An action plan for vulture conservation has been published11  that recognises that scavenging birds are declining, but are beneficial to humans, and that good waste management can benefit birds and humans directly12 . Also, BirdLife International17  has published guidance on waste management focusing on the Middle East, and initiated their Migratory Soaring Bird Project (https://www.birdlife.org/middle-east/projects/migratory-soaring-birds). Citing the situation on Socotra Island, researchers have called for re-establishing the mutualistic relationship between Egyptian vultures and people in areas where vultures are declining (Gongoso et. al9 ).  

The current positive status of scavenging birds in Arabia that is supported by a relatively benevolent environment is good, but should not be a reason for inaction. If nothing is done on national, regional and global scales, drastic declines will continue and we will lose nature’s waste managers; eventually maybe even in current strongholds, like Arabia.


  1. Michael McGrady is an ecologist at the International Avian Research in Krems, Austria. Tariq Al Amri is the CEO of Oman Environmental Services Holding Company S.A.O.C (be’ah), headquartered in Muscat, Oman. Andrew Spalton is Adviser for Environmental Affairs, Office of the Minister, Diwan of the Royal Court in Muscat, Oman.
  2. Porter, R. & Suleiman, A.S. The Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus on Socotra, Yemen: population, ecology, conservation and ethno-ornithology. Sandgrouse 34, 44–62 (2012).
  3. Angelov, I. et al. Large increase of the Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus population on Masirah Island, Oman. Sandgrouse 34, 140–152 (2013).
  4. Meyburg B.-U. et al. Oman’s resident Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus population appears much larger than estimated. Br. Birds. In press.
  5. McGrady, M.J. Diurnal raptor migration, including wintering, on the Arabian Peninsula, an overview. Sandgrouse Suppl. 4, 85–104 (2018).
  6. https://steppeeaglesoman.blogspot.com/
  7. Markandya, A. et al. Counting the cost of vulture decline—an appraisal of the human health and other benefits of vultures in India. Ecol. Econ. 67, 194–204. (2008).
  8. Al Fazari, W.A. & McGrady, M.J. Counts of Egyptian Vultures Neophron percnopterus and other avian scavengers at Muscat’s municipal landfill, Oman, November 2013–March 2015.  Sandgrouse 38, 99–105 (2016).
  9. Gangoso, L. et al. Reinventing mutualism between humans and wild fauna: insights from vultures as ecosystem services providers. Conserv. Lett. 6, 172–179 (2013).
  10. Al Farsi, G. et al. Use of the municipal dump site on Masirah Island, Oman by Egyptian vultures Neophron percnopterus, 2013–2018. Sandgrouse. In press.
  11. Botha, A. J. et al. Multi-species Action Plan to Conserve African-Eurasian Vultures. CMS Raptors MOU Technical Publication No. 5. CMS Technical Series No. 35. Coordinating Unit of the CMS Raptors MOU, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (2017).
  12. Safford, R. et al. Vulture conservation: the case for urgent action. Bird Conserv. Int. 29, 1–9 (2019). 
  13. IUCN 2019. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2019-1. http://www.iucnredlist.org. Downloaded on 21 March 2019.
  14. Green, R.E. et al. Diclofenac poisoning as a cause of vulture population declines across the Indian subcontinent. J. Appl. Ecol. 41, 793–800 (2004).
  15. Cuthbert, R. et al. Rapid population declines of Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) and red‐headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus) in India. Anim. Conserv. 9, 349–354 (2006).
  16. McGrady M.J. et al. Home range and movement of Egyptian Vultures in relation to rubbish dumps in Oman and the Horn of Africa. Bird Study 65, 544–556 (2018).
  17. BirdLife International 2013.  http://migratorysoaringbirds.undp.birdlife.org/sites/default/files/waste_management_best_practices.pdf