When you picture the natural purity of Africa, the image in your head might contain lions resting on a large boulder with lush bushes in the background, buffalos walking along a dry riverbed or elephants rolling in mud pools.

But this picture is not likely to contain vultures. Vultures have a bad reputation. Vultures are viewed with disdain.

People tend to look down on these birds as dirty, ugly, and unhygienic, and most do not know how important they are and how we all benefit from their “services”. Vultures have an extremely corrosive stomach, which allows them to eat dead – and rotting –  animal carcasses, even if they are infected with anthrax, botulinum toxins, rabies, and hog cholera. By doing that, they help keep ecosystems healthy and prevent the spread of these diseases to humans and other animals.

But vultures – especially in Africa – are under serious threat, largely from poison.

Some are victims of farmers who attempt to kill lions or hyenas attacking their cattle, and some are targeted by poachers who don’t want rangers to notice the birds circling over killed elephants or rhinos. Since 2011, over 2000 vultures have died in Southern Africa and several vulture species are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

A group of German scientists is working hard to reverse this trend. Germany’s Aerospace Centre (DLR), Berlin’s Technische University (TU), the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) have put their heads together and are gathering enough data to stop vulture populations from disappearing.

We will be following these passionate scientists to remote, rural and hard-to-reach areas in Namibia. The South African country has lost two of its six original vulture species in the past decades and the remaining four are all critically endangered.