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Vultures

Let’s face it: vultures are special. Part of human culture, they are seen as disgusting by some, yet loved by others (including us and you).

Asia’s vultures have suffered some of the fastest population declines ever recorded in a bird, and Africa’s recent severe declines mean that now most “Old World” vultures are on the edge of extinction.

With a unique scavenging niche, this group of birds clean our landscapes and help to prevent the spread of disease—among the many reasons why we are doing all we can to save them.

In 2015 BirdLife International made an announcement that sent shockwaves through the conservation community: Africa’s vultures are on a steep slide towards extinction. In all, six of Africa’s 11 vulture species were placed in a higher extinction risk category – reflecting sharp populations declines that brought to mind the catastrophic collapse of Asia’s  vultures in the 1990s.

Family:  Accipitridae, Cathartidae
Diet: Carnivore
Life span: Up to 30 years
Wingspan: Up to 320cm (Andean Condor)
Weight: Up to 15kg (Andean Condor)
Group name: Kettle (in flight), Committee (resting), Wake (feeding)


Did you know

Vulture species are divided into two groups.

“Old World” vultures live across Africa, Europe and Asia. There are 15 living species of Old World vulture. “New World” vultures inhabit north and south America. There are seven species of New World vulture.

Although often clumped together, the two groups are not closely related. Instead, their similar appearances have evolved through convergent evolution, since both sets of birds are fine-tuned scavenging machines.

Of the 22 vulture species, 14 are globally threatened with extinction.

With 3m wingspan, Andean Condor is one of the largest flying birds © Don Mammoser / Shutterstock
Andean Condors are becoming increasingly scarce because of habitat loss, poisoning and persecution. They’re now considered Vulnerable as of the latest Red List update. Image © Don Mammoser / Shutterstock

Poisoning is the biggest threat to vultures.

Across Africa and Southeast Asia, vultures have suffered catastrophic and unprecedented population declines, mainly because of poison.

The main cause is the poisoning of carcasses on which they feed; whether the vultures are the intended or accidental victims, they are the most efficient scavengers and so suffer the worst losses, in some cases dropping dead from trees or out of the air within metres of a poisoned carcass.

In the last 50 or so years, populations of seven of the 11 African vulture species have plummeted by 80–97%, and four species are now Critically Endangered.

For several years, BirdLife has been pushing for a strong intergovernmental policy on the veterinary use of diclofenac and similar non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. These painkillers are often used on livestock, but are deadly to vultures that scavenge on their carcasses. Finally, in February 2020, a resolution adopted by the UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species covered their use and regulation as never before, offering new hope.

The Egyptian Vulture – an iconic species that featured in Ancient Egyptian art – is now Endangered. Image © BirdLife Europe / Flight for Survival campaign

11 of 16 African-Eurasian vulture species are at risk of extinction in our lifetimes.

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