International Vulture Awareness Day: Help preserve South Africa’s vulture population facing extinction

Vultures are seen feeding on a carcass near Kimberley. Picture: Beryl Wilson

Vultures are seen feeding on a carcass near Kimberley. Picture: Beryl Wilson

Published Sep 3, 2023


South Africa has joined nations across the globe in marking International Vulture Awareness Day, dedicated to the ecologically vital group of birds that face a range of perils which threaten many species with extinction.

The main drivers of vultures’ population decline include poisoning, electrocution and collisions with energy infrastructure, illegal harvesting for use in the traditional medicine sector and habitat changes.

Peter Mbelengwa, national spokesperson for the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment said rates of decline and causes of poisoning differ across the African continent.

“In Southern and East Africa, vultures die after eating carcasses of intentionally poisoned animals. These situations arise, for example, when poachers use poison to kill native African wildlife such as rhino, elephant in poaching incidents and feral dogs, hyenas and jackals as a result of human-wildlife conflict,” said Mbelengwa.

Wildlife officials pile up the corpses of some of more than 50 vultures feared to have been poisoned in the Swartberg area farming district. File Picture

In addition, Mbelengwa said poachers kill vultures because their presence can attract the attention of law enforcement agents.

Vultures also die as a result of the use of pesticides by humans.

“Another aspect that has received scant attention to date is the significant threat to human health posed by the use and consumption of wildlife products, including vulture body parts, that have been poisoned,” he said.

Vultures play an intrinsic role in the environment by cleaning up carcasses and other organic waste in the landscape.

“They are nature’s very own clean-up crew and thus provide essential ecosystem services that also directly benefit humans,” said Mbelengwa.

The first Saturday in September every year as marked as the International Vulture Awareness Day dedicated to raise awareness about the plight of vultures – the unsung heroes of our ecosystems.

International Vulture Awareness Day is recognised as a coordinated day to create greater awareness about the conservation of vultures and to highlight the important work being done to protect the species.

Vultures are protected by law because they are a threatened species. For one to be in a possession of a vulture part needs to apply for a permit through Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Image: supplied.

South Africa is home to nine vulture species, seven of which are facing threats of extinction.

“Cliff-nesting species include the Bearded Vulture and the Cape Vulture. Tree-nesting species include the Hooded Vulture, White-backed Vulture, Lappet-faced Vulture, White-headed Vulture and Palm-nut Vulture. The Egyptian Vulture, although once considered a resident breeding species, has not bred in South Africa since the 1920s,” said Mbelengwa.

“The White-headed, Hooded and White-backed Vulture are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.”

These birds of prey are a characteristic and spectacular component of Africa’s biodiversity.

Mbelengwa said once common and widespread across the continent, African vultures have been undergoing widespread, multi-species declines over the last 30 years.

“Unless effective conservation action is implemented nationally, there is a likelihood that several of these species will become extinct in the near future,” he said.

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment established a National Vulture Task Force (NVTF) which developed a Multi-Species Biodiversity Management Plan, which was published for public participation in December 2022.

The final Biodiversity Management Plan is expected to be finalised and published for implementation within the 2023/24 financial year.

To mark International Vulture Awareness Day this year, the national department is collaborating with the Endangered Wildlife Trust, SANParks and a number of local stakeholders to raise awareness about the exploitation of the species.

“The aim is to reduce and eventually halt the practice of intentional poisoning of vultures and its impact, and to work alongside traditional medicine practitioners to ensure the implementation of responsible and sustainable practices that will contribute to the conservation of the species,” said Mbelengwa.