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GoPro-Armed Vultures Capture Lima’s Trash Problems

By sniffing out illegal dumps, the watchful buzzards will hopefully inspire action to clean up the city’s streets

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smithsonian.com

Vultures get a bad rap in popular culture, but the carrion-sniffing scavengers play a critical role in ecosystems around the world. By chomping down on dead things before they can fester, vultures help keep disease from spreading. Now, Peruvian environmental officials are recruiting vultures to tackle Lima’s serious trash problem.

New York City might be swarming with pigeons, but they have nothing on Lima’s black vultures. The big black birds can often be seen wheeling through the sky above Peru’s capital city, but for many of the city’s human residents, there’s no love lost for the scavengers. These vultures are often seen as symbols of the poverty and neglect that many of Lima’s poorest citizens experience every day. But now, environmental authorities are hoping to turn that around by outfitting several vultures with GPS locators and cameras to help locate illegal trash piles that are hidden throughout the city, Dan Collyns writes for the Guardian.

"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."

The project is called “Gallinazo Avisa,” or “Vultures Warn,” and is a joint collaboration between the U.S. Agency for International Development and Peru’s Ministry of Environment. At the moment, the project has outfitted 10 vultures with GoPros and solar-powered GPS trackers. The vultures, which have names like “Captain Phoenix” and “Captain Huggin,” are trained to seek out garbage dumps. As they fly, the images they capture are streamed back to headquarters and any illegal dumps found are logged. People can also watch the vultures’ flights via an online map.

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

While the project is useful in letting authorities detect these illegal dumps, the problem can’t be solved by vultures alone. For years, Lima has struggled to deal with the 8,000 tons of trash its 9 million residents produce daily. The city operates a few landfills but they can only process about 20 percent of the garbage Lima’s citizens produce, meaning the rest ends up in the streets or in illegal dumps, Linda Poon reports for CityLab. Part of Lima's garbage problem comes from the limited resources of the city's municipalities, as many residents just don’t pay taxes, Collyns reports. 

Not only are the streets dirty, but the waste makes its way into Lima’s rivers, which are the city’s main water supply. Hernandez hopes that the project will not only change Lima’s attitude towards vultures, but will inspire its residents to help clean the city up.

"On one hand, pestilence and disease are hidden among the filth,” a vulture narrator intones in a melodramatic commercial for the project. “On the other hand, humanity is placidly ignoring the danger that threatens."

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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