4 Sep 2020

Our new partnership with Project Ranger will ramp up vulture protection

Through an exciting new partnership, BirdLife is helping rangers continue to combat poaching in difficult times and bringing vultures into the spotlight among the more high profile victims of wildlife trade.

By Cressida Stevens

If you were to ask someone on the street what comes to mind when they think of poachers, they would likely speak of elephants and ivory; rhino and their horns; perhaps pangolins (the world’s most trafficked animal) for those that are more in the know. It is unlikely that their first response (or even second or third) would be “vultures”. Vultures are the undocumented victims, picked off not just in their ones, but at times in their thousands by poachers.

In some cases, vultures are the primary target. In West Africa, vulture populations have been decimated by the trade in their parts for belief-based use, such as traditional medicines. Yet this demand for vulture parts is highly localized and still vultures are being targeted by poachers across the continent.

So, if not intended for trade, why else are poachers persecuting vultures? The answer is that vultures reveal poachers’ secrets. Vultures are known for their circling behaviour high above recently-deceased carcasses before descending to feed, and they will do just the same for the tusk-less corpse of a poached elephant. In doing so, they alert rangers to the presence of poachers and act as part of the patrol team: sentinels in the sky. Devastatingly, poachers are aware of this unusual collaboration and will lace plundered carcasses with poison (a practice referred to as sentinel poisoning) to kill off vast numbers of vultures and prevent them attracting attention.

This year has been particularly relentless for both rangers and the wildlife they fight to protect. Reduced ranger presence due to COVID-19 restrictions earlier in year presented a fresh window of opportunity for illicit activity. In addition, the cessation of tourism activities and diversion of governments’ environmental funds to address the pandemic has left rangers inadequately funded, resulting in cutbacks. It is this urgent situation that prompted the Great Plains Foundation to launch Project Ranger. Project Ranger is an emergency source of funding to support those on the front-lines of conservation and allow monitoring and anti-poaching efforts to continue. Crucially, for BirdLife International, as well as supporting the protection of some of conservation’s iconic species such as elephants, rhinos and gorillas, Project Ranger recognises the special connection between vultures and rangers. So, identifying an opportunity to make momentous advances in vulture conservation, BirdLife International entered into partnership with Project Ranger earlier this year.

This initiative has come at a significant time as BirdLife looks to further its scope in addressing other threats to vultures. For a long time, we have been tackling the accidental poisoning of vultures via use of agricultural veterinary drugs, and we continue to celebrate breakthroughs such as country-wide bans on diclofenac and the new intergovernmental resolution targeting the use of these drugs that was announced earlier this year. But now, with mass vulture deaths reaching record numbers at the hands of poachers, our concern has risen over the deliberate killing of these birds. Sentinel poisoning is an especially tough threat to crack and something that will require widespread, interorganisational collaboration. Project Ranger, with its links to several African countries where poaching is prevalent, therefore presents a real opportunity to make progress in tackling this threat. Working with Project Ranger, we hope to raise the profile of vultures in relation to poaching and share our experience from across the Partnership to ensure that their survival is incorporated into anti-poaching efforts moving forward.

Learn more about Project Ranger here.

Support us in our efforts to save vultures here.