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New study published yesterday shows that African vultures are declining at a critical rate, and heading towards extinction

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A new paper published this week in the scientific journal Conservation Letters by an international team of researchers from across Africa, Europe and North America, including leading scientists from National Museums of Kenya, Endangered Wildlife Trust, Makerere University and The Peregrine Fund, suggests that several species of African vultures are likely to qualify as ‘Critically Endangered’ under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s global threat criteria.

The paper includes shocking continent-wide estimates of decline rates in African vultures, and finds that many national parks and game reserves appear to offer vulture species in Africa little effective protection, because vultures are very mobile and can easily travel hundreds or thousands of kilometres.

Being long-lived, slow breeders, vultures take several years to reach maturity, and typically fledge only a single offspring every 1-2 years. Yet the study indicates that Africa’s vultures are declining at rates of between 70% and 97% over three generations. Since six of the eight species are largely or wholly confined to Africa, and are projected to decline by at least 80% over three generations, the study suggests that they are likely to qualify as ‘Critically Endangered’ under the IUCN’s global threat criteria.

The study estimated rates of decline (over three generations) for the following eight vulture species: Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus (-70%), Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus (-92%), White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus (-90%), Rüppell’s Vulture Gyps rueppellii (-97%), Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres (-92%), Hooded Vulture Necrosyrtes monachus (-83%), Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotos (-80%), White-headed Vulture Trigonoceps occipitalis (-96%).

Large declines of Africa’s vultures should ring alarm bells due to their immense ecological importance. Vultures are a vital component of a healthy environment, and provide ecosystem services such as disposal of carcasses and other waste products. If we don’t take urgent steps to save these birds, and in particular to curtail wildlife poisoning, we should expect long-term consequences for the environment, as well as for humans in Africa.

Continent-wide declines in vulture species have already been reported in four Asian vulture species. However the study’s authors highlight two important distinctions between the Asian vulture crisis and that in Africa. First, to date, the rates of decline evident in Africa have been substantially lower than in Asia, affording African governments a window of opportunity in which to head off the environmental consequences of a collapse in this functionally important group.  Second, while Asian vultures have declined largely as a result of a single factor (ingestion of the anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac), African vultures face multiple threats. They include incidental and deliberate poisoning, the illegal trade in vulture body parts for traditional medicine, killing for bushmeat, mortality caused by power lines and wind turbines, and a reduction in habitat and the availability of food from wild animal populations.

The study suggests that the greatest quantifiable threat to Africa’s vultures is poisoning, which accounted for 61% of all reported deaths. African vultures are often the unintended victims of poisoning incidents, in which carcasses are baited with highly toxic agricultural pesticides to kill livestock predators. However the study also shows that the recent rapid increase in elephant and rhino poaching throughout Africa has led to a surge in the number of vulture deaths recorded, as carcasses have been poisoned specifically to eliminate vultures, whose overhead circling might otherwise reveal the poachers’ illicit activities.

The trade in vulture parts for traditional medicine is particularly widespread in West Africa, where vultures are openly traded at large markets, especially in Nigeria and Benin. Because vultures remove large amounts of pathogen-infested meat and other waste products each day, they limit the spread of disease in both rural and urban areas. Ironically, therefore, the trade of vultures for traditional medicine may in fact enhance the spread of disease.

The authors suggest an effective regulation of the import and sale of agricultural and other chemicals commonly used as poisons. This would benefit not just vultures, but all species widely targeted by pastoralists and poachers in Africa. Saving Africa’s vultures from extinction will require unstinting support from African Governments.

The full article is free to view at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/conl.12182/abstract

(Photos André Botha)

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