USAID's GoPro-vulture approach to environmental awareness ... yes, really.

Vultures in the streets of Peru. GPS-equipped vultures are helping geolocate illegal trash dumps in the country. Photo by: cliff hellis / CC BY-NC-ND

The U.S. Agency for International Development faced a tricky challenge in Peru’s bustling urban centers. How do you raise citizen awareness and concern about a critical natural environment most city dwellers will never have the opportunity to see?

That’s where the vultures come in.

Capitán Huggin, Elpis, Nyx and seven others, each of them equipped with a GPS tracker and, sometimes, a GoPro video camera. The vultures go about their business in the skies over Lima — and in the trash piles of its gutters — all the while clueing municipal authorities into the locations of illegal dumping sites around the city.

They are also, USAID hopes, pulling urban Peruvians into a conversation about environmental stewardship, civic awareness, and the value of natural environments both near and far.

Devex spoke with USAID Peru Mission Director Lawrence Rubey about this fresh take on public engagement — and about redeeming a much-maligned cohabitant of South America’s cities.

Be honest, when you first heard about this idea what was your reaction?

When this was pitched to us as, “vultures with GoPro cameras using social media,” I think we all looked around the room and knew we had a winner. It had a lot of ingredients of creativity. There’s always a challenge of trying to get messages out that resonate … You’ve got to have something different.

Why the focus on garbage? Obviously the connection between vultures and garbage is clear, but what’s the connection to USAID’s portfolio?

Our prime interest as USAID and the prime reason we are here is helping the Peruvians conserve this incredible natural resource they have in the Amazon basin. It’s a source of world class biodiversity and also is critical for climate change mitigation. We began supporting them in their work to raise citizen awareness of the Amazon. A third of the population lives in Lima, and the vast majority of people living in the capital city will never travel to the Amazon in their lifetimes. It might as well be another planet to many of the Peruvians. The Ministry of Environment recognized that … we have to have some way to link it back to issues people care about if we’re going to get people engaged in environmental issues.

How many vultures are we talking about?

There are 10.

Vultures Warn!

What has been the public response to this initiative? Personally I think I’d be terrified to see a GoPro-equipped vulture zeroing in on my trash can. How are people reacting down there?

On YouTube [we] have over 2 million views of the initial video. We have something like over 3.6 million people reached if we count views plus interactions on social media — Facebook and Twitter. We’ve reached a huge chunk of the target population, which is never guaranteed in any kind of campaign. It’s the ingredients … the vultures and the GoPro. You put those together with a compelling storyline and having vultures that you can see where they are based upon their GPS device — and they are posting [online] and have personas that have developed. The campaign has been attractive enough to keep people interested in coming back to the website to see what the vultures are doing. They’re out walking their dog or they’re going to work and they see a vulture and they say, ‘I wonder if that’s…’ And then they get pulled in by that to the citizen action campaign — ‘maybe I’ll join a neighborhood cleanup.’

Tell me about the creative mind behind this. Who came up with it?

We worked closely with a publicity firm — FCBMAYO, and their creative people were the ones that put together the idea. Our communications people at AID played a huge role in shaping it, and we would have gone nowhere without the University of San Marcos and the biologists at San Marcos … We wanted to make sure that no vultures would be harmed in the production, and the biologists understand vulture feeding behavior and they’ve been monitoring vulture populations in Lima.

This was unintended, but it has changed citizen perceptions of vultures. The vultures we’re talking about are black vultures. They’re common in all urban areas of Latin America. They eat garbage. They are reviled by many people as scavengers. I’ve had the fortune, because of this activity, of holding a vulture in my hand a foot away from my face, and they stink. So, it’s understandable that for centuries people have treated them as vermin, essentially. And here is a situation where vultures are serving as guides and warning and advising where there are solid waste problems. How they are viewed among Peruvians, at least in Lima, you’ve seen a shift. You read the comments on Facebook and Twitter, “they’re cute,” “they’re attractive,” “they’re lovely.” And that wasn’t how a normal citizen would describe a vulture a few months or a few years ago.

Is GoPro officially involved in the project, or are they just the camera of choice?

They were the camera of choice. That’s a good suggestion. We should hit them up in the next phase. They’ve probably gotten as much publicity as we have.

What do you do with all of the footage? Can we expect a vulture highlight reel anytime soon?

They’re not always carrying the GoPros, but they are always with GPS. So we know based upon where the vultures are where they are feeding. Where they are feeding then can be georeferenced … and many times it’s a clandestine site where somebody has illegally dumped a bunch of garbage. Municipal authorities can take action and try and identify, maybe it came from a business, and try and prosecute them for illegal dumping. Maybe it came from a neighborhood that has informally used this area all the time. The community can begin to say, ‘how can we clean up this area and use better sanitation and improve our community health.’ It becomes a gateway to recycling. It becomes a gateway to a conversation about environmental health.

Have the vultures been trained in any way, or are they just pulled in unwittingly?

They have different levels of training, and this was all the University of San Marcos … They had worked with vultures before. There had been injured vultures they had taken into recuperation programs. There were vultures that they were monitoring in terms of long term population studies. So when the cameras were located on them, they had to be trained to return ... because they wouldn’t carry the cameras 24/7.

What is a vulture like to work with — I mean, temperamentally?

I can only comment on my brief experience at the university. They were pretty placid in the sense that they were used to humans. For generations vultures and humans have coexisted in major urban areas, so my experience was not of vulture aggression.

Are there any plans underway to draft other animals into USAID service? Perhaps llamas to locate landslides?

No, no plans in the immediate future, although we’re fortunate that the Ministry of Environment has really enjoyed this campaign and is looking for ways to extend it and expand it. But I don’t think that will involve other members of the animal kingdom.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.