You know something bad’s about to happen in a movie when the vultures show up. In Disney’s Snow White, the future princess is tricked when the Evil Queen visits her cottage with a basket of apples, the reddest and juiciest of which is poisoned.
“They sure look delicious!” Snow White says.
“But wait till you taste one, dearie!” the Evil Queen cackles.
Cue two enormous black vultures, hunched over menacingly in a nearby tree, practically salivating as they watch the scene unfold. Death, of course, is near. Snow White brings the poisoned apple to her lips and falls into her long slumber.
Vultures have long been reviled as harbingers of death, but contrary to their bad reputation, the birds are vitally important to humans. Found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, they consume virtually every last bit of the rotting carcasses they find—sometimes even the bones. They are, in other words, nature’s best cleanup crew. They help farmers avoid paying for carcass disposal when their cattle die. And, they reduce the spread of disease; most other scavengers, like flies and rats, leave leftovers, which creates a breeding ground for bacteria.
But vultures are disappearing globally. Humans have long been culprits: The birds get poached, snagged in fishing gear, and poisoned when they eat carcasses contaminated with hunters’ lead shot; they lose their habitat when it’s developed. And now, a study published last month in Biological Conservation has confirmed what many people fear is their greatest threat: Vultures in Africa, Asia, and Europe are being poisoned with diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug. Experts worry that if the poisoning continues, the loss of the birds could upset the balance of life and death in ecosystems around the world.