Most trash in Lima, Peru—a city of 10 million people—ends up in illegal dumps, and, since the city is on the Pacific coast, often ends up making its way to the ocean. When Peru's Ministry of the Environment decided to create a publicity campaign to help clean up the city, they brought in some new help: a flock of GoPro-wearing vultures that now fly over neighborhoods helping find trash.
Black vultures, a local species, have long been associated with garbage, so the team first thought the birds could serve as a symbol of the campaign. "Then that evolved into—we could actually use them to locate the clandestine trash dumps," says Lawrence Rubey, the Peru mission director for U.S. Agency for International Development, which worked with the Ministry of the Environment on the project.
Working with partners at a local university and the Museum of Natural History, they learned how they could work with the bird's natural skill at garbage location. The university was already following several birds to study them. "They'd tagged vultures before to understand their seasonal movements, so this wasn't anything new," Rubey says. "What was interesting was that GPS data—real-time information about where they were feeding—was then put on a website. [The birds] were assigned these personas and names ... they became characters in a drama about solid waste and illegal garbage dumps in Lima."
Here's footage from Basan, one of the vultures:
The birds are better at finding the trash than people are, and even better than state-of-the-art technology, like drones. "Drones can't sense trash—vultures can," he says. "You'd be flying around with a drone trying to use the camera to see where a dump is. The vultures immediately go to the trash."
Illegal dumps are so common in the city because businesses have to pay to use one of the city's official landfills, and many try to avoid the fees. But the hope of the campaign is that the novelty of the birds will get citizens interested in solving the problem—and once the birds scope out the site, they can learn more about how to clean up dumps in their neighborhood or report trash themselves.
The campaign has also had the unintended effect of helping the reputation of vultures, not traditionally a popular bird. "They've been viewed as this dirty bird that feeds on human refuse, feeds on dead animals," says Rubey. "And it's interesting to go through the Facebook pages and read the pages and people say, 'Oh, so cute, look at the darling bird.' ... It's good to see birds appreciated for what they do."