During the millions of years of evolution, our species have left their footprints all over the Earth, but it was not until a couple of centuries ago that they started to think about ecology and environment. Today, the harm we have done to the planet is just too critical to pass unnoticed. Sustainability has become the key concept of environmental studies, and the major energy, vehicle, food, clothing, and other common goods manufacturers are frantically going green. Whether it is done with genuine concern for the future of the planet or in order to attract consumers, the “green” campaigns inspire the consumers to buy organics, save water and energy, recycle, and more. A conscious person thinks before taking an action that can potentially affect the environment, and every person’s effort to go green is a little step towards a sustainable life. But whatever effort we might take, we cannot completely stop producing trash daily.
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The per capita amounts can seem small: in Peru, for instance, a person produces only about 600 grams of it. But on a larger scale, the republic can expect a whopping 6,000 tons of trash a day (Euronews Knowledge). To dispose of such a load of garbage, people have been using landfills for quite a long time. Landfills, albeit their ugliness and bad odor, help keep the trash under control. The gases can be collected and turned into less dangerous gases; the emissions in soil and water can be reduced when using protective sheets and sealing the trash in earth. For now, landfills seem a worthy solution to the problem of excessive trashing – at least, the legal ones. The governments choose the sites for landfills and fund the workforce and machinery to maintain them, but sometimes an impromptu landfill can spring in the places where it was the least expected. Illegal landfills plague the developing countries and the Earth, which urges us as a sapient species to think something up as soon as possible.
In its combat against illegal dumping, Peru has come to an unexpected and ingenious solution. Seeking out the dumps one by one seemed inefficient since the landfills appeared faster than they could be discovered and cleansed. Not being able to achieve a significant result with human resources, Peruvians decided to refer to non-human animals for help. In Lima, a campaign was launched that employed vultures as their scavenger cooperatives (Euronews Knowledge). Although hardly loveable in a public perception and not at all cuddly, vultures seemed the most suitable species for the job. The first squad of birds was equipped with GPS and cameras and trained to return to their falconers after they had feasted, safely bringing the recordings back for the humans to analyze.
The project has been started recently and has gained considerable attention of the media. Generally, the commentators and analysts praise the wit and smartness with which the vultures are used (Collyns par. 1-2). But, apart from the genuine surprise at the very idea of using birds of prey as scavengers, the observers refrain from enlisting other opinions on the subject, which is why our research appears relevant. People has long employed working animals as assistants and generally relied on their “sixth feeling” in case of emergencies and catastrophes. The mistreat and abuse domesticized animals often experience can provoke a reasonable question whether it is at all ethical to use them for our purposes. Another question that arises is whether vultures are endangered as a species and whether using them in a campaign is a worthy strategy. Finally, it is worth asking whether there are any other ways of fighting the pollution either without exploiting the birds or using them solely for drawing the public’s attention to the issue.
Landfills and dumps: Appearance and function
Tossing food wrappers and plastic bottles into garbage bins, we do not think about the trash a second time. People in uniform collect our waste, pile it in their trucks and go off, taking care of our problems for us. The trash does not disappear magically, as we are all aware; instead, it is either recycled, burned or composted, or else, it ends up in the landfills. In fact, almost half the amount of waste we produce in the US is stored away in the landfills – which is a drastic amount, considering that the US has been responsible for 251 million tons of garbage in 2006 alone (Freudenrich par. 2). Of course, this much waste cannot be stored under open skies or dumped in a gutter – which is why a modern landfill has been made safer and smarter.
Most people picture a landfill as a giant hole in the ground to put waste in. It is true that illegal dumps mostly look like this, but governmentally controlled landfills are better thought through. Firstly, they are isolated from the places that people inhabit. Secondly, they are constructed so that the waste does not touch the surrounding environment. A landfill can be built into the ground, but to isolate the garbage from the soil, a sheet of protective material is put underneath. This is done in order to prevent emissions from the garbage into the soil or the subterranean water bodies. Also, unlike the compost piles, in landfills, the trash is protected from air and fallout to keep it from decomposing for as long as possible (Freudenrich par. 4). To build a landfill, an array of factors should be taken into consideration: the territory, the consistency of soil, the humidity level, the amount of fallout, the presence of historically significant buildings or artifacts anywhere near or within the potential landfill site, etc. (Freudenrich par. 5). A landfill is costly, which is why illegal dumps appear.
An illegal dump is basically household litter thrown out in places near the households themselves. In length of time, as the amount of solid and liquid garbage increases, it starts to rot and attract animals, birds and insects. The odor coming from the rotting pile is half the problem; the other half consists of emissions into the atmosphere, soil, and water. The most critical part of it is that the emissions are out of control since the government is usually unaware of the dump at first. Such dumps are plaguing the South-East Pacific and seriously jeopardize the environment in Peru and Chile (Thiel et al. 116-117). Supposedly, such excessive littering has triggered the Peruvian government’s decision to launch the vulture project in Lima, using the birds to discover unauthorized landfills and assess the issue. Albeit the media’s excitement and praise, such decision appears quite ambiguous with regard to the safety of the birds and their population.
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The use of vultures in a public campaign
For their scavenger habits, the Peruvians use black vultures, or coragyps atrarus. This species is extensive in population and does not fall under special protection since it breeds quite easily and does not suffer a lack of food, especially in the landfilled areas (Birdlife International par. 1). Sometimes black vultures feed on cattle and smaller animals, which is why they are regarded as a threat. However, the birds feed mostly on carrion and float high in the air on their search for food. Vultures either see the food from far up or follow other vultures on their way, which is a valuable asset for the project.
In the media, employing such birds was generally met with amusement. The social advertisement with its powerful noir atmosphere generally associated with death and birds of prey depicts vultures as Batman-style superheroes willing to help humans out of the pollution and dumping. The media asserts that the idea is unusual and might improve the image of a vulture in public cognition. The vultures are said to be trained and provided with high-tech equipment, which adds up to the amusement, creating the impression of cooperation between the birds and the humans (Colyns par. 1-3).
Of the plethora of news sources and tabloids mentioning the project by Peruvian environment ministry, none has assumed that the birds can be not quite happy with the task. Such employment of birds for human needs can remind of infamous cormorant fishing practice in China. The birds were used for their swimming qualities just as the vultures – for their extraordinary eyesight. However, in order to prevent cormorants from swallowing the fish they had caught, fishermen tightened their necks with a string (Manzi and Coomes 598). Such practice can seem hardly ethical, considering the contemporary fishing possibilities and is mainly used nowadays as a tourist attraction. The situation can be easily analogized with the usage of vultures to detect piles of garbage. It is true that they are handled by professional falconers, and the videos create the impression that the birds are well-fed and cared for. The image of cooperation and mutual respect is imposed, and people are encouraged to act as “vultures on earth”, but history remembers many occurrences of people abusing animals as a logical follow-up of merely using them. There have been no reports of vultures being mistreated within this very campaign – but the project is yet to gain out trust, considering that there are other opportunities to go green and fight illegal dumping.
The ways of combatting the pollution
Using vultures cannot be the only way of detecting the dumps. To develop a possible strategy of solving the problem, it is worth understanding why the dumps appear in the first place. In their study of the issue of pollution in the South-East Pacific, Thiel et al. suggest that the sources of litter are both the poorly-informed locals and tourists with a low level of eco-literacy (125-130). They assert that the problem of pollution requires attention and considerable funding by the government. On the other hand, the garbage is costly in itself, considering the materials it is made of: plastic, paper, etc. Consequently, the authors suggest, the most optimal way to reduce the pollution is to reduce the amount of garbage produced through recycling and reuse. For that sake, they state, it is necessary that the local population is educated and well-informed about recycling practices so that they can educate the tourists. It is mentioned that a number of private organizations have developed programs on enhancing eco-literacy. The authors state that such programs should be extended in coverage and comprehensibility (Thiel et al. 132).
Although the authors mainly provide us with their empirical assumptions, we can see the point of logic in here. It is true that governments and environment departments cannot battle with the litter on their own. It would inevitably require extensive funding, and the funds would be nowhere to be raised from but the taxpayers’ pockets. We would like to add, however, that to confront a complicated and serious issue that pollution is, education is not the only factor of the population’s involvement, although its significance is undeniable. The population should be both informed and motivated to take part in the problem solving. At that, we have to give credit to the Peruvian government and environment ministry. They have invested into a campaign that has rapidly gained public interest and focused people’s attention on the issue – mainly because vultures with GoPros were involved.
Wild and dangerous birds working for the environment’s sake have gained recognition, with the online newspapers picking up the idea and spreading it apart all over the Web. But, as we said, the birds being used as a hook to catch the public’s focus is ethically ambiguous. On the one hand, we know little about the conditions the vultures are kept in, what they are fed and how they are treated; the images created by social ads assure us that they are in good hands but the project is yet to gain trust, keeping in mind the cormorants. On the other hand, the species are not labeled as endangered and the natural qualities of black vultures make them perfect for the task they are given. Thus, as far as we can judge, using vultures is a successful move on the way to cleanse Peru of the garbage and generally improve the environment. However, as far as the ethics is concerned, the birds’ condition is rather unstable.
To conclude, we have overviewed the functioning of landfills, the issue of pollution in Peru in general, and the deployment of black vultures in particular. We have estimated that legal landfills allow to keep garbage under relative control whereas dumping in the fields and rivers can put the environment under jeopardy. Within the framework of eco-oriented project launched by Peruvian environmental ministry, people employ black vultures as detectors of illegal dumps. This project simultaneously draws public attention to the problem of dumping and pollution in general, improves the image of a vulture in public cognition, and actually helps detect and tackle the dumps in Lima, Peru. From the ethical point of view, the situation remains ambiguous since too little is known about the project itself and the conditions that the birds are kept in. There are other ways of engaging the public into handling and eliminating illegal landfills, such as recycling, reusing, and educating the locals and tourists about the drastic pollution-related situation. However, we have to assume that, as long as the birds are treated fairly, involving vultures into the campaign was a relatively well-judged action.
BirdLife International. American Black Vulture: Coragyps atratus, 2016.
Collyns, Dan. “Drowning in rubbish, Lima sends out the vultures with GoPros.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 2016. Web.
Euronews Knowledge. “Vultures help combat illegal garbage dumps in Peru.” YouTube. 2016. Web.
Freudenrich, Craig. “How Landfills Work.” HowStuffWorks: Science. HowStuffWorks, n.d. Web.
Manzi, Maya, and Oliver T. Coomes. “Cormorant Fishing in Southwestern China: A Traditional Fishery under Siege.” Geographical Review 92.4 (2002): 597-603. Print.
Thiel, Martin, Macarena Bravo, Iván A. Hinojosa, Guillermo Luna, Leonardo Miranda, Paloma Núñez, Aldo S. Pacheco, and Nelson Vásquez. “Anthropogenic litter in the SE Pacific: an overview of the problem and possible solutions.” Journal of Integrated Coastal Zones Management 11.1 (2011): 115-134. Print.