Africa
22 Oct 2015

BirdLife Partners commit to saving Africa’s vultures

Nature’s clean-up crew are in drastic decline so BirdLife Partners come together to take action. Dr Kabelo Senyatso pledges for BirdLife Botswana. Photo: Obaka Torto
Nature’s clean-up crew are in drastic decline so BirdLife Partners come together to take action. Dr Kabelo Senyatso pledges for BirdLife Botswana. Photo: Obaka Torto
By Shaun Hurrell

“I can’t imagine Africa’s skies devoid of vultures,” said BirdLife South Africa’s Chief Executive, Mark Anderson, when he chaired a crucial meeting last week to take action against this currently ill-fated family of birds.

And it is not just the skies - you do not want to imagine how the land will look (and smell) if Africa is devoid of vultures, nature’s unique and thorough waste and carcass ‘clean-up crew’ that halts the spread of disease for free.

You see, vultures are in drastic decline in Africa and it is high-time the world fully-appreciated the severity of this problem for not only the birds themselves, but the health of the people of the continent (and their livelihoods - given the economic value of carcass removal by vultures).

“Africans, who derive direct benefits from having their vultures in their skies, must take the lead in mitigating threats to African vultures,”

said Dr Kabelo Senyatso, Director of BirdLife Botswana and current Chairman of the BirdLife Council for African Partnership.

A trailer-load of dead vultures from one poisoning incident. Photo: Simon ThomsettA coordinated response is urgently needed that does justice to the scale of this imminent crisis

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As such, BirdLife Partner NGOs across Africa join forces and commit to playing a leading role in efforts to save the continent’s vultures. This is the conclusion of a workshop on African vultures held at the BirdLife Council for Africa Partnership Meeting in Senchi, Ghana, on 13 October 2015. The energy and warm air in that meeting room gave a real uplift towards getting vulture populations soaring once again in Africa.

Vultures need to be allowed time to recover. Lappet-faced vultures on a nest. Photo: Andy & Gill SwashNot having the best cultural reputation, Africa’s vultures need all the support they can get at the moment. As South Asia’s vulture populations have collapsed since the mid-1990s, those of Africa have also been declining, less steeply but over a longer period. This has led in many areas to a similar loss, for example around 98% of West Africa’s vultures outside protected areas have disappeared over the last 30 years. In South Africa, Cape Vulture have declined by 60-70% in the last 20-30 years. The causes of the declines in Africa are more varied and complex than those in Asia, which were driven mainly by the use in cattle of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac.

Africa holds 11 species of vulture, 6 of which are not found elsewhere.

They face threats from poisoning - both accidental and deliberate - related to human-carnivore conflict and the poaching of large mammals. In much of southern Africa, locals call the poison used “two-step” because an animal takes only two steps before it drops down dead.

Persecution of vultures for their body parts for use in cultural practices and divination is also a headline threat - for example contributing majorly to an 80% decline in Hooded Vulture in Nigeria. Other threats include both collisions with powerlines and wind energy infrastructure (as well as electrocution by powerlines), habitat loss, declines in food availability and disturbance at breeding sites.

Stopping and reversing the declines, by tackling these difficult issues, is one of the greatest challenges facing bird conservation in Africa. Though we need to continue to learn more about the threats and their relative importance in different parts of Africa, we cannot afford to wait to begin to take action. Large-scale initiatives are needed, engaging strongly on political and cultural as well as socio-economic levels. 

“Rather than counselling despair,” says Roger Safford, BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme Manager, “Conservationists need to show the world that we can make a difference starting now.” 

At the Senchi meeting, BirdLife Partners and contacts representing or working in 25 vulture range states in Africa identified such activities.

Graphic: BirdLife South AfricaMost Partners committed to changing people’s perceptions about vultures. We have new materials and momentum with which to educate, advocate and raise awareness of their value and the consequences of their disappearance.  Other commitments included focus on regulating the use of agrochemicals in East and Southern Africa, and focus on tackling traditional practices and the market for it in both South Africa and West Africa. Through local achievements, combined with the results of ongoing research, we can join forces to build up to tackle the most intractable threats such as poaching and human-wildlife conflict at source.

The future of a family of birds depends on what happens next.

Some Partners, such as BirdLife South Africa, have already started ground-breaking communications campaigns to get people listening.

Griffon Vultures bathing together. Photo: Rachid El Khamlichi & Mohammed Karim El Haoua.The BirdLife Partners also recognised the crucial need to work together, with not only other bird conservation organisations active in Africa, such as the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Vulture Specialist Group, The Peregrine Fund and Endangered Wildlife Trust; but also those concerned with other species, such as elephants, hyenas and lions, that are also affected by many of the same threats.

“The threats facing these magnificent birds should compel all of us – not just conservation agencies – to take an interest and have an active role in saving them,” commented Dr Senyatso.

Patricia Zurita, with Bradnee Chambers (Executive Secretary of the UNEP Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS)) recently made a commitment to ensure that the plight of these essential creatures is made known to a global audience.

Beyond this, the health, sanitation, tourism, agriculture and other sectors all experience the consequences of the loss of ‘nature’s clean-up crew’ (for example the decline in vultures had an estimated annual cost of $1.5 billion to human health in India), and will all gain from solutions to the crisis. This brings in Governments, bilateral and multilateral agencies (including regional trade blocs), scientific bodies and many others. Religious leaders, too, have a key role to play in spreading the concern for vultures, and showing that trade in and use of vulture body parts for cultural and divination practices needs to stop.

With the support of the BirdLife International Partnership, lessons will be learned, and shared, with Europe and Asia, where much progress has been made but threats remain such as the licensing of veterinary diclofenac in Europe. The recent ban on veterinary diclofenac announced by the Government of Iran is a very welcome step to be emulated elsewhere.

We're in it for the long haul.

A few days before the Senchi meeting, countries across Eurasia and Africa had agreed to list twelve vulture species, including all the highly threatened African species, as priorities for action under the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Birds of Prey (Raptors MOU) – a subsidiary agreement under the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) – as a response to the African vulture crisis. This brings new opportunities to strengthen and link Government and civil society commitments to national and regional initiatives such as the Pan‐African Vulture Strategy, through the development of a Multi-species Action Plan covering all the vultures of the Old World.

Dr Senyatso directs his words to the people of Africa:

“If you pause for a minute to think about what an African sky without vultures means to your own personal life, you will realise that you need to actively participate in their conservation.” 

To conclude, watch this space... We’re not just going to sit around and watch vultures fall out of the sky. 

“We can turn this generation around to understanding that vultures are most important when they are alive and fulfilling their unique role in the ecosystem,”

says BirdLife’s Chief Executive, Patricia Zurita.

“Let’s save nature’s clean-up crew.”


#savevultures   #lovevultures   

BirdLife launches a campaign to save Africa's vultures