FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Vultures are critically important to the world’s ecosystem and circle of life, but they’re also critically endangered.

“We’ve lost 97 percent of the population [in the world] in the last few decades,” Area Curator in Africa at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo Ty Leammle said.

Vulture Gomez

In the wild, vultures are getting inadvertently poisoned. Poachers in the ivory trade will use poison to kill elephants and rhinos because bullets could be traced. Farmers will use poisoned decoy animals to protect the rest of their livestock. The lions or hyenas would eat the poisoned decoy and die. But, vultures are also eating those carcasses and dying.

Saturday, September 2 is International Vulture Awareness Day. The Fort Wayne zoo is also working to help save the species around the world.

The zoo is home to three Ruppell’s griffon vultures: 17-year-old Wednesday, 16-year-old Gomez and 15-year-old Igor.

Ruppell’s griffon vultures at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo

“Wednesday and Igor are a breeding pair. We get eggs from them, but we’re still working on them as parents. We’re working on an artificial incubation program to help contribute to the species,” Leammle said.

Vulture Wednesday had her wing amputated because of cancer, but is okay now.

The zoo also supports Vulpro, a group that works to raise and rehabilitate vultures in the wild.

“Coming to the zoo is a big thing. We donate funds to Vulpro every year,”

Zoogoers can learn about vultures every day at 3:30 p.m. with a keeper chat while the birds are fed their daily rats. Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, the vultures are fed special enrichment foods.

Vultures Igor and Gomez

“They get beef shank bones. We give them these for the marrow inside. It’s natural for them to dig in there with their beaks and pull everything out,” Leammle said.

Vultures are experts at finding food in the wild.

“They can see about four miles and they’ll cruise at 37,000 feet. They’re the highest flying bird and cruise at 22 mph and will search as much as 100 miles from their nest site to find food,” Leammle said. “They will steal food too. They’re big, tough competitive birds. In the wild, they could have hundreds of birds feeding off one carcass, so they have to fight to make their place and get the food they want.”

Vulture Igor

The zoo hopes exposing guests to the vultures will help conservation efforts.

“We want to bring notice and familiarity to the species. They’re smaller birds out here and can get overlooked because they hang in the back a lot and we want to make sure they get their time in the light as well,” Leammle.

Last year the vultures were also one of the zoo’s target conservation species and zoogoers could vote to put conservation dollars toward saving the vultures.

Wild on WANE airs on WANE 15 every Tuesday at 5 p.m. and on First News Saturday from 7 a.m. – 9 a.m.