08/20/2014 01:33 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

Unsanitary Birding

When a sanitation system breaks down or doesn't exist at all, garbage and sewage accumulate and become incubators for disease. It is a lesson that seems to be lost on many Africans, who have allowed a major component of nature's sanitation brigade to become seriously depleted.

We're talking about vultures, whose population is estimated to have disastrously shrunk -- primarily at the hands of humans -- by as much as 60 percent in East and South Africa. It is even worse in West Africa (home of the Ebola epidemic) where 95 percent of the birds have vanished from rural areas over the past 30 years.

Vultures may be ungainly, but they feed on (and thus dispose of) not only rotting animal carcasses in the wild but raw garbage associated with human settlements. If left to fester, these meal sources of the birds become major repositories of contagious disease, so vultures' dietary proclivities are a distinct boon to human health.

Vultures are able to perform their vital service because their digestive tract contains an acid that breaks down lethal pathogens they ingest wile scavenging carcasses and garbage. They pick clean the dead and dying infected animals with which humans can and have come in contact either directly or through other animals that feed on the fetid carcasses. Hence, vultures reduce human exposure to all too common African scourges such as cholera, botulism, and rabies. The birds can even digest and neutralize a corpse's bodily fluids containing the ebola virus without ill effect.

Why are Africans proverbially "killing the goose that laid the golden egg?" Many of them treat vultures as a food source, but the bird's meat is hardly a staple of the African diet. It is usually slain to satisfy medical superstition. Eating the brains supposedly endows the consumer with clairvoyant ability. Devouring the beak and feet is thought to bring good luck.

Then there are the poachers who poison their illegal carcasses to kill the descending vultures in order to prevent the birds from circling the scene of future crimes and giving away the criminals' location.

There have been spotty efforts throughout the continent to halt the poisoning and restore vulture populations to healthy levels but so far with negligible results.

Vultures are unsightly birds, but like so many eyesores in nature, they have a beneficial role in the overall scheme of things.

Africans need to break through their cultural myopia and also effectively crack down on poachers. If not, the world will be left with another dispiriting case of humans abusing nature and paying dearly for their poor judgment.