Team of super vultures deployed in Peru to battle polluters

Outfitted with GoPros and solar-powered GPS trackers, the crew of carrion-loving vigilantes is sniffing out illegal dumps in Lima.

They may be the unlikeliest heroes put to work in the name of the environment, but there they are. Captain Huggin, Captain Phoenix, Captain Aella and a crew of seven more trained black vultures (Coragyps atratus) that have been tasked with doing what they do best: sniffing out rubbage.

But specifically, rather than doing what vultures usually do – circle ominously over dying things or delicately pluck intestines from roadkill – this high-tech team patrols the skies of Lima, Peru on the lookout for illegal trash disposal.

If that sounds odd, consider this. Dan Collyns explains in The Guardian that the city of 10 million people has just four landfills … and countless illegal dumps. “A fifth of the rubbish ends up there, according to the environment ministry,” Collyns notes. “Run-off from the waste contaminates Lima’s main water source, the Rimac river, as well as with the Chillon and Lurin rivers, which flow into the bay of Lima.” With 8,000 tons of trash created a day, it’s really quite a mess.

Vultures© Larsek So what to do? Send in the vultures. The project is called “Gallinazo Avisa” (Vultures Warn) and is a joint collaboration between the U.S. Agency for International Development and Peru’s Ministry of Environment – and it’s really clever. While vultures may have a notoriously creepy reputation, they are nonetheless an important part of ecosystems across the planet – their ability to handle bacteria and their taste for decay makes them great comrades in helping get rid of waste and to help stop the spread of disease. What they may lack in the cute-and-cuddly department they more than make up for in their valuable sanitation skills.

So armed with GoPros and solar-powered GPS trackers – which look small enough to be unbotrusive – the Peruvian kettle* of vultures soars above the city; the images they capture are streamed back to headquarters and any illegal dumps they discover are logged, explains Smithsonian Magazine.

"Vultures are our allies in the reduction of organic waste," project director Javier Hernandez tells the Agence France-Presse. "In their search for food, what they're really doing is identifying places where there is organic matter and garbage. We're using that ... to get the GPS coordinates and monitor these sites."

“We share the vulture’s GPS coordinates with the municipalities,” says Hernandez. “It’s their job to collect the rubbish and to try and change the habits of their residents.”

VulturesGallinazo Avisa/Screen captureAnd perhaps changing the habits of the residents is where the vultures really come in handy. The whole project has a great PR component to it – people can even track the vultures’ flights with an online map (above). And it’s all brilliant. It brings great awareness to the problems of waste disposal, and at the same time, helps advance the cause of an otherwise maligned bird that could really use some respect.

MapGallinazo Avisa/Screen captureThe project website provides a lot of educational information and even bios for the team of ten. Plus, one can view the wonderfully gothic explainer video for the project there (which you can also watch below). It’s all over-the-top moody melodrama, narrated by our vulture heroes, in which the virtuous “carthatidae lineage” (aka the vultures) are pitted against sickness and squalor, while we garbage-producing humans hem and haw.

"On one hand, pestilence and disease are hidden among the filth,” one of our vulture heroes says. “On the other hand, humanity is placidly ignoring the danger that threatens."

I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely on Team Vulture.

For more on the project, visit Gallinazo Avisa.

* Bonus arcane trivia for the day! The term kettle means a groups of vultures in flight. Committee, volt, or venue refer to vultures resting in trees. Wake is used for a group of vultures that are feeding.

Tags: Birds | Peru | Waste

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