29 Oct 2015

Africa’s vultures are sliding towards extinction warns BirdLife

Six of Africa’s 11 vulture species are now on the edge of extinction, according to the latest assessment of birds carried out by BirdLife International for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
"I can't imagine the African skies devoid of vultures", said Mark Anderson, Chief Executive, BirdLife South Africa. Can you?
By Adrian Long

Six of Africa’s 11 vulture species – the continent’s largest and most recognisable birds of prey – are now at a higher risk of extinction, according to the latest assessment of birds carried out by BirdLife International for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™.

The main causes of the drop in African vulture populations are thought to be indiscriminate poisonings, where the birds are drawn to poisoned baits, use of vulture body parts in traditional medicine, and deliberate targeting by poachers, as the presence of vultures can alert authorities to illegally killed big game carcasses.

Dr Julius Arinaitwe, BirdLife International’s Africa Programme Director, said:

“As well as robbing the African skies of one of their most iconic and spectacular groups of birds, the rapid decline of the continent’s vultures has profound consequences for its people – as vultures help stop the spread of diseases by cleaning up rotting carcasses.”

“However, now we are becoming aware of the sheer scale of the declines involved, there is still just enough time for conservationists to work with law-makers, faith-based organisations, government agencies and local people, to make sure there is a future for these magnificent scavengers.”

We’re not just going to sit around and watch vultures fall out of the sky. 

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BirdLife Partners recently came together to take action for African vultures - making a commitment to save 'Nature's clean-up crew'.

Patricia Zurita (BirdLife's Chief Executive) 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.

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. 

Today, BirdLife launches a campaign to save Africa's vultures:

“Vultures and other birds play a critical role in maintaining healthy ecosystems,” said Simon Stuart, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. “Their decline can have serious knock-on effects on other species and the many benefits provided by nature. While it is encouraging to see some positive outcomes of conservation action, this update is an important wake-up call, showing that urgent efforts need to be taken to protect these species.”

More on vultures

Graphic: Birdorable

Six species of African vultures have seen their status worsen:

·         Hooded Vulture Necrosyrtes monachus: Endangered to CRITICALLY ENDANGERED

·         White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus: Endangered to CRITICALLY ENDANGERED

·         White-headed Vulture Trigonoceps occipitalis: Vulnerable to CRITICALLY ENDANGERED

·         Rüppell's Vulture Gyps rueppellii: Endangered to CRITICALLY ENDANGERED

·         Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres: Vulnerable to ENDANGERED

·         Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotos: Vulnerable to ENDANGERED

Five other species of vulture are found in Africa, and one of these is already classified as Endangered (Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus), with two others Near Threatened (Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus and Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus).

Just two species that occur in Africa, the Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus, a predominantly Southern European and Central Asian species, and the mainly vegetarian Palm-nut Vulture Gypohierax angolensis, are still regarded as Least Concern, though numbers of Griffon vulture in Africa are also thought to be declining.

In Africa, the situation is not attributable to a single issue – unlike in South Asia, where the three previously most common vulture species have seen numbers decline by 98% in recent years as a result of feeding on carcasses of livestock treated with the veterinary drug diclofenac (a medicine used to treat cattle and highly toxic to vultures). 

In Africa, the main causes of a drop in vulture populations appears to be threefold, primarily the indiscriminate poisoning of vultures – a by-product of people trying to deliberately eradicate mammalian predators of livestock (and in some areas feral dogs), with the poisoned carcasses or baits inadvertently attracting vultures.

Another major issue is the use of vulture body parts in traditional medicine – a recent scientific paper found that 29% of the vulture deaths recorded continent-wide could be attributed to this secretive trade. These practices are thought to be widespread in West Africa, as well as Southern Africa. Body parts of vultures are used by the traditional medicine industry for a number of purposes.

The third most significant threat to African vultures appears to be poachers deliberately targeting the birds to avoid them giving away the presence of their illegally killed big game carcases, such as rhinos or elephants. Between July 2011 and 2014, at least ten such poisoning incidents were discovered, which resulted in the deaths of at least 1,500 vultures across six southern African countries.

Other factors thought to play a role in the declines include habitat loss, human disturbance and collisions with wind turbines and electricity powerlines (as well as electrocution by the latter).

If you are in any way moved by this story, please visit: www.birdlife.org/savevultures

The IUCN Red List is the world’s most comprehensive information source on the conservation status of plant and animal species. 

BirdLife is the Red List Authority for birds for the IUCN Red List. As part of a new scientific collaboration announced in 2015, BirdLife’s Red List assessments are now sponsored by Carl Zeiss Sports Optics. 

See all the 2015 Bird Red List changes