14 Dec 2020

Red List 2020: Andean Condor heads list of raptors in steep decline

Poisoned, poached, persecuted – iconic raptors such as the Andean Condor, Secretarybird and Martial Eagle have moved to higher threat categories in this year’s update to the IUCN Red List, sparking fears that the crisis that brought many Asian and African vultures to the edge of extinction has spread to new continents and species.

The Andean Condor is now classed as Vulnerable to extinction © reisegraf.ch / Shutterstock
The Andean Condor is now classed as Vulnerable to extinction © reisegraf.ch / Shutterstock
By Jessica Law

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The Andean Condor Vultur gryphus – the national bird of Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia – is now globally threatened with extinction. This year, the emblematic species had its threat level raised to Vulnerable in our annual update to the IUCN Red List of threatened species (for which BirdLife is the authority for birds). With a wingspan of over three metres, the Andean Condor is one of the world’s largest flying birds, making an unmistakable silhouette as it soars above the Andes mountains at altitudes of up to 6,500 metres. It is also one of the longest-lived bird species, with a natural lifespan of up to 70 years.

However, this majestic scavenger has seen rapid population declines in recent years due to persecution and poisoning. The bird is deliberately shot or targeted using poisoned bait in retaliation to extremely infrequent attacks on livestock. It is also impacted by illegal use in folkloric events and trade, and can die from ingesting lead shot left in carrion.

“The Andean Condor is built to last. But humans are ruining its natural ‘live slow, die old’ life strategy, causing high death rates from which it is hard to recover,” says Ian Davidson, Regional Director, BirdLife in the Americas. “This iconic raptor has been found in Andean folklore since 2,500 BC. To lose it now would be a tragedy for South American culture and ecosystems alike.”

Thankfully, captive breeding, community education and habitat restoration programmes are underway across the condor’s range. In 2014, Antisanilla Biological Reserve was set up in central Ecuador to safeguard one of the most important Andean Condor nesting sites. Researchers across the Americas are surveying and satellite-tracking wild populations to gain further insights into its movements. However, the species’ reclassification as globally Vulnerable underlines the need to scale up conservation work and collaborate with governments to strengthen anti-poisoning laws.


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The Secretarybird, an iconic African savannah species, is Endangered © Michael Potter11 / Shutterstock


The Andean Condor’s plight is sparking fears that the crisis that brought many Asian and African vultures to the edge of extinction has spread to South America. Across Africa, work is underway to halt the catastrophic decline of vultures – but new information  reveals that other African savanna raptors are experiencing similarly alarming rates of decline.

The Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius, a striking species famed for its method of stomping on prey such as mice and snakes to kill them, is one of three species reclassified as Endangered and now considered to face a very high risk of extinction, along with Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus and Bateleur Terathopius ecaudatus. Habitat loss and degradation, poisoning, poaching and disturbance are all likely factors in these declines, but more research is needed to identify the root causes and the most efficient way to address them.

“While any species being listed as threatened is obviously bad news, it doesn’t have to be a tragedy,” says Ian Burfield, Global Science Coordinator (Species), BirdLife International. “For many, the road to recovery begins here, as listing brings visibility to their plight and helps to raise their conservation priority. The issues flagged by the Red List should form the focus of further research and action.”


The Red Kite's recovery provides a message of hope © Richard Towell


The Red Kite is a shining example of the benefits that such conservation action can bring. This graceful raptor was previously considered Near Threatened, owing to declines in its core European range due to poisoning from pesticides, persecution and land-use change.  Legal protection under the EU Birds Directive led to an action plan and targeted conservation actions across its range, including large-scale reintroduction projects and community education. The success of these measures has seen it recover from earlier declines, and it continues to increase and expand. This year, it was reclassified as Least Concern – the lowest category of extinction risk.

Poisoning and persecution are still obstacles to the Red Kite’s full recovery in some areas, so there is still much work to be done. Nevertheless, its revival provides an inspiring model for large-scale raptor conservation around the world – and encouraging proof of the impact conservation can have when given enough investment and resources.

To keep up with all the news coming out of this year’s Red List update, visit our hub page.


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