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It's not too late to save Africa's Vultures

Vultures are perhaps the most misunderstood of all animals. For centuries, their unsavoury eating habits have riddled them with superstitions of death and deceit. With their bald, withered heads and feathered ruffs that rather resemble those of Cruella De Vil, it is perhaps understandable why. But today, I’m going to try and change this perception of yours, because it turns out vultures aren’t the grim reapers of the bush. Instead, they’re the eco-janitors of the Okavango Delta, who’s existence is of great importance to you. In direct contradiction of your superstitions, it is humans that are the real danger. Vulture populations are plummeting across Africa and, while they may not have the good looks of the panda, saving them is just as important. There’s still hope, but only if we act now. So, if you’d like to save our vultures, then read on.

A wake of vultures perch on a dead tree, waiting for their moment to swoop in to the carcass. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley

In Botswana, we have five different species of vulture. All share the same laser vision, curved beaks, sharp talons, and predilection for carrion. To satisfy their dietary cravings for these deceased animals, vultures must ride thermals high up into the sky and soar for hundreds of kilometres while they search for prey. Special adaptations allow them to breath at these extreme altitudes, in combination with an enormous wingspan and impeccable eyesight. While landing is easy, taking off is much harder for a vulture. As big birds, capable of eating an enormous quantity of food, conditions must be just right for take-off. Until it starts to heat up, they must hop around awkwardly and hope nothing spots its vulnerability. African vultures predominantly use their eyesight (in comparison to New World vultures who rely on smell) to spot prey, but more often they rely on the presence of other scavengers, like bateleurs, jackals, hyenas and other vultures, to locate their food source. They don’t have the guts to take on these larger scavengers, so instead you’ll find hundreds of greedy vultures lining the nearby trees before swooping in for their feast.

Vultures often rely on other scavengers, like this hyena and jackal, to locate their prey. Photo credit: Liz Johnston.

A wake of vultures can strip a carcass clean within minutes. Their razor-sharp beaks are designed to tear through flesh and grizzle like tissue, their bald heads to reach deep inside the carcass’s cavities, and an internal storage ‘crop’ to house 1.4kg of undigested food between meals. The frantic activity of vultures at a carcass somewhat resembles an American black-Friday sales event. As soon as the doors open, or the bigger scavenger has had its full, within seconds hundreds of vultures will be vying for their scrap of the carcass. First to the party are the White-headed and hooded vultures. Amongst the elbowing (or winging), the relatively polite lucky few will get their fill. Soon, however, they are ousted by the loudest and pushiest of the clientele. As the White backed vultures swoop in, more time is spent squabbling than actually eating, with bits of meat and blood being hurled in every direction. But karma soon comes around again. Last to arrive are the lappet-faced, the largest of all the vultures, with their feathered ruffs somewhat resembling posh ladies in fur coats and high heels. With the ultimate authority, they scoop up whatever the others could not afford.

Vultures soar above a carcass. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley

Despite their reputation as the archetypal villain, vultures are actually highly social animals, proud parents and remarkably hygienic. Still, while the humble vulture might not be your definition of pretty, their value in Africa’s great circle of life cannot be underestimated: they are nature’s clean-up squads, the eco-janitors of the bush. Inside a vulture’s stomach, acid and bacteria are working overtime to kill any diseases that might be lurking in a putrid carcass. From anthrax to botulism, rabies to cholera, these unsung heroes stop otherwise lethal diseases from spreading in our ecosystems. Right now, huge colonial nests of White-backed vultures should be lining the Delta’s iconic Mokolwane palms. In them should lie one egg that will be incubated for over two-months by two doting parents and cared for until independence. It’s not just nesting that they do socially, but also eating. Unfortunately for vultures, this means that one poisoned carcass can kill the lot. In combination with their slow breeding cycles and late maturation, this creates the perfect storm for Africa’s vulture populations.

A white backed vulture soars through frame. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley.

For India, this became reality. Between 1992-2007, south Asia’s vulture populations crashed by over 97% as a result of accidental poisoning from livestock medicine. Rotting corpses lined the streets, contaminating water sources, increasing feral rat and dog populations, and leading to a surge in rabies deaths at a cost of $34 billion to the economy. Africa, with its similarly high population density and where we rely on vultures to clear 70% of carrion, may well be next. This is precisely why it was so devastating when the news of the lethal poisoning of 468 white-backed, 28 hooded, 17 white-headed, 14 lappet-faced, and 10 cape vultures in Botswana broke headlines around the world. All of these endangered or critically endangered vultures had feasted on three poisoned elephant carcasses, right in the middle of breeding season. It followed news of 600 dead vultures in Namibia in 2013 and now we hear the news of 2,000 dead hooded vultures in Guinea-Bissau just in March. In summary, most African vulture species have crashed by 80% over the last 30-years, inching ever closer to extinction.

The 2019 press release that accompanied the tragic mass vulture poisonings. The story made headlines around the world.

90% of reported vulture deaths in Africa can be attributed to poisoning, as with the above example, or trade in traditional medicines. Poachers intentionally poison vultures to prevent their actions from being discovered by swarms of these circling detectives soon after their crimes. They may lace the carcass with a pesticide or go so far as to poison the local water sources in advance of the killing. Other poisonings are accidental. For example, in India it was livestock medicine that killed so many vultures. But more often than not in Africa, it’s farmers leaving out poisoned baits for pests like lions and hyenas, making vultures an unfortunate collateral damage. Unregulated sales of ‘lion killer’ pesticides like Carbofuran and Furadan is largely to blame, with those exposed suffering a long and excruciating death. Traditional medicine is also a major contributor and the suspicions surrounding vultures make them a prime target. Their talons are used as medicine for treating fevers, eyes to supposedly see into the future, and brains ground to snuff for magical powers. The final straws are electric cables, wind turbines and urbanization, with thousands of vultures crushed, electrocuted and ousted from their habitat every year. But there is still hope.

Vultures are often poisoned in retaliation against lions. Photo credit: Hannah Gormley

In Asia, campaign groups successfully won a ban against the poisonous veterinary products that caused its population plummet. In Europe, with reintroduction programmes, new regulations and working with farmers to leave out safe dead livestock, 3 out of 4 species are actually increasing. In Africa, all states where vultures occur have agreed to a ‘Multi-Species Action Plan’ over the next 12-years. ‘Vulture Safe Zones’ are being set up across vast swathes of land where anti-poisoning measures, education and habitat restoration is in place. Organisations like the Peregrine Fund are working around the clock to train thousands of individuals in poisoning intervention, decontamination, sample collections, and building predator-proof corrals to keep wild animals away from livestock. Their work in the Masai Mara has reduced poisoning by 50%. The VulPro Rehabilitation Centre is nursing sick vultures back to health and major tourist landmarks, like the Victoria Falls Hotel, are launching educative initiatives and providing vultures with safe meals to raise their profile. Communities are also getting involved in citizen science programmes, like the Africa Raptor Databank which tracks vulture flight paths to prevent new wind farms being built along their favourite routes.

Our community education programme, including the screening of our films in Setswana, aspires to change the perspective on those animals that suffer most from human-animal conflict. Photo credit: Noah Falklind

The fate of African vultures lies in all of our hands. So, get involved in citizen science projects, call in a tagged vulture if you see one, support the conservation agencies working around the clock to save vultures on your behalf, and, most importantly, educate yourself and your loved ones on why vultures are so important to us. The first step towards saving the vulture is simply to make people like them.


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