Andreas Späth

Africa’s vultures in freefall

2015-09-07 09:47

Andreas Wilson-Späth

I doubt many South Africans know that last Saturday was International Vulture Awareness Day, which is a shame, because the continent’s vultures are in serious trouble.

An international study recently published in the journal Conservation Letters investigates the status of Africa’s eight distinct vulture species in 95 populations and 22 countries. The results are depressing: all of the species have declined by an average of 62%, while seven have experienced a precipitous drop in numbers of 80% or more during the last three generations.

The situation is most severe in East and West Africa, but populations are being decimated across the entire continent, including Southern Africa. The majority of deaths, some 61% out of nearly 8 000 recorded since 1970, are the result of poisoning.

In most instances, vultures are accidentally killed when farmers illegally lure predators they consider threats to their livestock, like jackals, hyenas, leopards and lions, with animal carcasses dosed with highly toxic agricultural pesticides. In other cases, supposed pest or nuisance animals like feral dogs are the intended victims, but far too often, vultures are the first to feed on the bait with lethal consequences.

In recent times, some elephant and rhino poachers have resorted to killing vultures on purpose with poisoned cadavers in order to prevent them from circling over a poached animal and alerting rangers to the scene of the crime.

In 2012 and 2013 at least ten poisoning incidents collectively exterminated around 1 500 vultures in Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. In South Africa, the widespread use of agricultural poisons has long resulted in the disappearance of vultures from many farming areas.

A much smaller proportion (some 9%) of vultures die as a result of electrocution or collision with electrical infrastructure such as power lines and wind turbines.

The authors of the study estimate that about 30% of all of the vultures killed in Africa are sold in the traditional medicine, muti and fetish trade or, much less frequently, as ‘bush meat’. In some cultures, especially in West and Southern Africa, vulture body parts are believed have medicinal properties effective in the treatment of a range of illnesses, including migraines and epilepsy. Others think they are imbued with the magical power of clairvoyance which grants a glimpse into the future and thus improves the chances of success for business ventures and gambling escapades.

Another brand new study documents the availability of body parts from vultures and other birds in 67 markets in 12 West and Central African countries as recorded between 1990 and 2013. The results suggest that many of the region’s raptors, including a number of threatened, vulnerable and endangered species, are sold as food and supposed medicine. More than 6 000 dead birds are believed to be traded in West Africa alone every year, the majority of them in Nigeria and Benin.

In addition to these threats, Africa’s vultures are, of course, also under massive stress from a continuous reduction in habitat and suitable food supplies. At current rates of decline, they could face extinction within the next 50 to 100 years. Their cause isn’t exactly helped by the fact that they are long-lived creatures that take years to reach maturity and breed only slowly.

The consequences of their steady demise are potentially very serious. In places like India, where vultures have all but vanished in recent decades, their absence has led to an increase in numbers among other scavengers, notably feral dogs, which are prominent carriers of rabies and represent a significant human health threat.

They may not be as cuddly as pandas or as iconic as lions, but vultures play a crucial part in African ecosystems. They most certainly deserve our attention and more dedicated conservation efforts before it’s too late.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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