Europe and Central Asia
10 Mar 2016

Nature’s clean-up crew in catastrophic decline

Poisoned White-backed and Ruepell's Vulture carcasses found in Laikipia County, Kenya. Photo: J Wahome
By Sanya Khetani-Shah

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. Four are now Critically Endangered, while two more have been added to the Endangered list (that only had one species of African vulture earlier). Two other species are Near Threatened.

“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,” said Dr Julius Arinaitwe, BirdLife International’s Africa Programme Director. Ecosystem services provided by wildlife and vultures in particular, will be impossible or enormously costly to replace once they are lost. A single living vulture is worth approximately USD 11,000 because of the scavenging services they provide.

Some species, like the Bearded Vulture and the Egyptian Vulture have a more widespread distribution and are familiar to birders in parts of Europe and Asia. Six species, including the Cape Vulture and Hooded Vulture, are found nowhere other than Africa. Seven of the continent’s 11 vulture species have declined by 80% in the last 30 years.

We need to act big and fast. BirdLife International is campaigning for vulture conservation, especially in Africa, and is working in alliance with governments and NGOs to identify the major threats to the species – nature’s ‘clean-up crew’ – and tackle them.

From poisons to poachers: the threats to vultures

This is far from easy. The reasons for the decline in the population of vultures in Africa is not as straightforward as it is in Europe or South Asia. There, vultures are killed when they eat cattle carcasses that have been treated with diclofenac, a veterinary drug that is harmless to the animal but toxic to the bird. In Africa, there are three main causes of a crash in vulture populations.

The biggest threat is the incidental poisoning of vultures, which occurs when people try to eradicate feral dogs and animals such as hyenas, lions and jackals, mammalian predators of livestock using baits poisoned with cheap agricultural pesticides such as carbofuran (the poisoned carcasses or baits attract the vultures). Sixty-one percent of all reported vulture deaths (7,819 across 26 countries) were a result of poisoning, according to a 2015 study.

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In a recent incident in January, more than 30 Critically Endangered Rüppell's Vultures and other birds of prey were found poisoned around three poisoned cows that had been left as bait for lions in Laikipia County, Kenya. Experts estimate that anywhere from 50-100 vultures could have been poisoned but flown away and died elsewhere. Shortly after, 41 White-backed Vultures, a lion and two kites were found poisoned in Zimbabwe.

Poisoned vulture carcasses found in Zimbabwe. Photo: Touran Reddaway

Another major issue is the use of vulture body parts in traditional medicine to cure various ailments, a custom widespread in west and southern Africa. Twenty-nine percent of the vulture deaths recorded in Africa could be attributed to this.

The third and emerging major threat is poachers (especially of ivory) that deliberately target the birds to avoid them giving away the presence of their illegally killed big game carcases by circling over them. “The poisoning of one poached elephant or lion can literally mean the death of hundreds of vultures,” said Masumi Gudka, Vulture Conservation Manager for the BirdLife International Secretariat in Africa. “Most vulture species commonly raise just one chick at a time so this kind of impact is huge for their populations – we need to act fast to save these special birds.”

Between 2012 and 2014, 11 poaching-related incidents were responsible for poisoning 2,044 vultures in seven African countries. Other factors thought to play a role in the declines include habitat loss, human disturbance and collisions and electrocutions by energy infrastructure.

What can be done

BirdLife International and its Partners are promoting the safe management and regulation of hazardous chemicals, especially pesticides, and the protection of vulture ‘safety zones’, important places where vultures are still surviving, to try and halt—and ultimately reverse—these steep declines.

African governments in the key countries for vultures are being urged to meet their commitments under the Rotterdam convention (2015) by ensuring that pesticides listed on Annex III of the convention and those widely implicated in wildlife poisoning (such as carbofuran), are restricted in their sale and no longer freely available over the counter. Manufacturers of these pesticides and poisons must also develop innovative solutions to phase out their manufacture and use.

In a great example of US-leadership on this issue, American manufacturing company FMC have made the decision to buy back their carbofuran ‘Furadan’ stock from East Africa after an incident of lion poisoning in Kenya in 2008.  The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals has also published guidelines on how to deal with the poisoning of migratory birds.

Strengthening the legal framework to prosecute offenders, improvement of laboratory testing facilities to help gather evidence for prosecution and development of standardised protocols for poisoning incidences are essential to curtail and deter poisoning of vultures, as is ensuring the security of key areas for vultures such as Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.

We’ve started talking to African ambassadors – please help us by doing the same and spreading the word.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.