• Journecology

What do you think of vultures?

Guest post from Lorna Harvey of "The New Blogologist" who has spent a significant portion of her life in Africa at various conservation and research centres.

Vultures have a hard time in the public eye, saddled with common misconceptions relating them to death, decay and ruthlessness. Vultures are the outcasts, lacking the compassion that we have for 'prettier' animals like lions, rhinos or pandas.

When the word 'vulture' is used, many people, including myself, think of a bald, ugly, unruly, dirty scavenger. The lappet-faced vulture has an undeniably shifty appearance. It is this species – with its hunched back, bald neck and scalp – that most will picture.

It is pretty ironic that in fact these birds, by nature's brilliant and resourceful design, act as its unsung heroes.

Lappet-faced Vultures (Torgos tracheliotos)

The Truth

In reality they can actually be quite beautiful birds, especially when you've seen them in flight, flying above you, circling as if they are in an intricately choreographed dance.

Irrespective of appearance, they play a hugely important role as nature's cleaners. Their role as the ultimate recyclers helps stop the spread of disease such as anthrax, rabies and tuberculosis as well as limit populations of other scavengers such as wild dogs.

They are also caring parents, fantastically efficient and hygienic, and are surprisingly quite a shy species. Oh and not all vultures are bald!

Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)

White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus)

The harsh reality

There are 23 species of vulture that occur across the globe. Africa supports half of these, 6 of which are unique to the continent. However, vultures are considered one of the world's most threatened groups of birds.

Just in Africa, 7 of its species of vulture are on the brink of extinction, categorised as globally Endangered or Critically Endangered by BirdLife - the authority for birds on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Below is a brilliant illustration by BirdLife that shows which of Africa's species are most threatened as well as showing the variation in the appearance and distribution of the species across this vast continent.

''A demand for vulture parts in witchcraft, as well as poisoning and urbanization, has caused a nearly 90 percent decline in the scavengers' populations'' Matt McCall - Nat Geo

Vultures are often poisoned through the carcasses they clear up. Some of this is due to medicated livestock, others are thought to be intentional by poachers, who sell their parts to people who use witchcraft. The birds are known for their tremendous eyesight, and many believe their body parts can be used to see into the future.

Poachers also use poison (often cyanide) to kill elephants for example (known to have occurred on multiple occasions in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe). This indirectly poisons the vultures when they are attracted to the dead animal. They also target the birds separately so they don't alert anti-poaching scouts to the dead animals which they'll inevitably circle.

Sixty-six vultures lie dead after eating poisoned carcasses in Limpopo, South Africa, on May 7, 2015. PC: Andre Botha

Vultures are also unintentionally poisoned by local farmers and communities. When a large predator such as a lion kills livestock, a farmer will turns to sprinkling poison/pesticides on the carcass to kill the predator in an act of retaliation, a practice that's illegal but rarely prosecuted. Vultures usually get to the carcass—and the poison—first.

The griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) PC: BirdLife

Taking action in Africa

Across Africa, various countries are taking action to conserve vultures though these are currently small in scale. For example awareness and advocacy to combat poisoning and regulate use of pesticides is being conducted in Kenya, Uganda, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and South Africa.

BirdLife partner NGOs are raising awareness in local communities by running campaigns in at least 9 countries. The most successful campaign so far has been through the celebration of the annual International Vulture Awareness Day.

Vulture populations are being monitored through road counts, carcass-based counts and annual site counts in e.g. in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. Research on various aspects of vulture ecology is being conducted through separate small-scale projects in at least 13 BirdLife network countries.

A preliminary survey has been done to assess the extent to which vulture parts are sold for use in traditional medicine in West Africa and in Zimbabwe, a national Vulture Conservation Action Plan is being compiled following a national workshop held in March 2015.

'Most of these actions are done in collaborations with government agencies, universities and other NGOs. However they need to be significantly scaled-up and better coordinated for them to have greater impact for securing vultures' - BirdLife

Small Organisations on the ground, such as Vulture Conservation Programme ("VulPro"), play an integral role in saving this species.

Vulture Chick - PC: VulPro

VulPro, established by Kerri Wolter in 2007, approaches vulture conservation in an integrated,

multidisciplinary way, to benefit not only the vultures but the local communities and surrounding environment. They work in vulture rehabilitation, breeding and reintroduction, wild population monitoring and research as well as running educational and awareness programmes

"VulPro combines education and good science, with networking, capacity building and knowledge generation."

This hands-on socio-biological approach to conservation is essential to establish mitigation methods that are not only effective but also long-term and sustainable.

Vulture Educational Programme run by VulPro - PC: VulPro

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