Plight of Africa’s vulture

Published May 18, 2014


Cape Town - Africa’s vulture is being decimated by illegal and accidental poisoning – and the result is a potential ecological catastrophe for the continent and a threat to human health, partly through the spread of rabies.

The plight of these largely misunderstood birds was discussed in Spain last month at an international workshop entitled “Poisoning and vultures – what is the situation in Africa and how can Europe help?”

Vultures have a poor public image, but play a vital ecological role, providing vital and efficient “ecosystem services” by scavenging on rotting carcasses and effectively cleaning up the environment.

“Without scavengers, carcasses are left to rot, disease spreads among other animals, sanitation decreases in and around villages and stray dog populations rise in tandem with associated cases of human injuries and fatal rabies incidences,” said the local environmental group the Endangered Wildlife Trust in a statement about the workshop.

André Botha, chairman of the vulture specialist group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s birds of prey programme, says vultures are “magnificent birds that provide a major service to African society by cleaning up dead animals and helping to prevent the spread of diseases”.

“If they disappear, Africa will face an ecological catastrophe.”

Africa is home to 11 of the 23 vulture species worldwide, and the workshop noted these populations were being hammered by the widespread, increasing and mostly illegal use of poison, “precipitating a biodiversity crisis with as yet uncharted human health consequences”.

Once common and widespread across the continent, four of Africa’s vulture species are rated as “globally endangered” and at risk of extinction, while three are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Species.

In West Africa, there have been catastrophic decreases of up to 97 percent for some vulture species in three decades, while rates of decline of between 50 percent and 60 percent have been recorded in East Africa and southern Africa.

Poisoning is the number one threat to these birds, the trust says.

“Whatever the means and the drivers, the situation is now critical – vultures are declining across Africa, largely at a dramatic rate.”

Darcy Ogada, a Kenya-based conservationist from The Peregrine Fund, told the workshop: “In India, the almost complete disappearance of vultures has resulted in a strong increase of the feral dog population and associated rabies incidence, which has been estimated to have cost $34 billion in human health costs alone.

“It’s shocking that nobody seems to be worried about the massive vulture decline we’re now witnessing across Africa.”

Moses Selebatso of Raptors Botswana said it was critical for African governments to become actively involved in the issue.

“Saving African vultures will require enforcement of policies on a continental scale.

Science and documentation of poisoning will support recovery, however, it will be the people of Africa and their governments that ultimately save the African vultures.” - Cape Argus

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Why few vultures survive

Why are Africa’s vultures being poisoned?

Rates of decline and causes of poisoning differ across the continent, says the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

In southern and eastern Africa, vultures die after eating intentionally poisoned carcasses – for example, when poachers use poisons to kill wild animals like rhinos and elephants; when feral domestic dog populations are targeted in a concerted poisoning campaign; or when poisons are put out to kill wild predators like jackals and hyenas that feed on livestock.

Also, poachers sometimes kill vultures directly because their conspicuous presence can attract the attention of law enforcement agents.

In certain African regions, vultures are killed for food, for the traditional medicine trade, and in direct persecution.

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