- The white-backed (Gyps africanus), Rüppell’s griffon (G. rueppellii) and hooded (Necrosyrtes monachus) vultures are IUCN red-listed as Endangered
- The lappet-faced (Torgos tracheliotos) and white-headed vultures (Trigonoceps occipitalis) are listed as Vulnerable.
- Researchers say that the only way to protect the vultures that remain is to sharply limit the availability of biocides and the acceptability of their use against wildlife.
When we think of what wildness remains on our depleted planet, one place still truly speaks to the human spirit: Africa — site of the last stand of the wondrous Pleistocene megafauna that our forbears largely extinguished across the rest of the world; the final redoubt of the lions, leopards, elephants and rhinos that haunt our ancestral memory.
Today Africa is enduring near total war over the fate of its natural heritage against a new breed of poacher — militarized and vicious; armed with military-grade weapons, helicopters and infrared vision; and with ties to terrorists and human traffickers. But amid grisly images of butchered elephants there lies a hidden harm, as thousands of vultures and other scavengers are poisoned by poachers to cover their bloody tracks.
In June, a report appeared in the science journal Conservation Letters that outlines in alarming terms the rate at which Africa’s great vultures are perishing. In “the first continent-wide estimates of decline rates in Africa’s vultures” ever made, the study’s authors, led by biologist Darcy Ogada of The Peregrine Fund, found that the eight vulture species studied had declined by an average of 62 percent in the past 30 years, with seven having dropped at a rate of eighty percent or more. Of these, says the study, at least six appear to qualify for upgrading to Critically Endangered status under the scientific criteria of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Ninety percent of the declines are directly attributable to human take, both from poisoning for the illicit trade in vulture body parts for use in traditional “medicine” and from poachers deliberately seeding the hacked carcasses of elephants and rhinos with lethal toxins to eliminate the whirls of winged foragers, visible for miles, whose presence can alert authorities to the crime scene.
With the demise of these great birds, the African landscape loses yet another critical ecosystem service, as bodies of vultures ring the bloated corpses of their last meal under an emptied sky.
African vultures in steep decline
“The most recent serious threat that has significantly amplified population declines of African vultures is the rapid increase in elephant poaching,” Dr. Ogada told Mongabay. “Poachers now target vultures and intentionally poison them at elephant carcasses because their aerial circling gives away the location of poachers’ illicit activities. This threat began in earnest in 2012, and has essentially doubled the number of vultures poisoned in the last three years, with over 2,000 vultures poisoned intentionally by poachers since 2012, that we know of, as surely a substantial number are never detected or reported.” In July 2013, nearly 600 vultures were killed after feeding on a single elephant poached in Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park.
Currently, the white-backed (Gyps africanus), Rüppell’s griffon (G. rueppellii) and hooded (Necrosyrtes monachus) vultures are IUCN red-listed as Endangered, with the lappet-faced (Torgos tracheliotos) and white-headed vultures (Trigonoceps occipitalis) in somewhat better shape and listed as Vulnerable. Such is the pace at which populations have ebbed in the last decade, that researchers say that further downgrading of conservation status seems inevitable.
The vultures of southern Asia – related in differing degrees to those under siege in Africa – have in the last two decades experienced even more appalling declines, mostly linked to the use of diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory agent and painkiller used in treating livestock which has caused losses of as high as 99.9 percent in some areas. Africa’s woes, while extreme and mounting, are at least taking place more slowly, and Ogada and her team see this as cause for a cautious kind of hope, provided we act now.
Who cares about vultures, really?
Even the most ardent anti-ivory activist may be forgiven for looking askance at the hissing, flopping, bareheaded fury with which a multispecies flock of African vultures disassembles the immense corpse of an elephant.
But vultures are absolutely critical to the health of their native ecosystems, particularly in areas with abundant megafauna — the California condor is a lonely relict from Pleistocene America’s surfeit of mammoths, camels and bison. African vultures are collectively able to whittle down the largest mammalian carcass in just a few hours, thereby greatly reducing the spread of disease to both wildlife and people.
Within the hellishly acidic guts of vultures lurk powerful microorganisms that attack and destroy the pathogens ingested while feeding on carcasses, granting the vultures both protections from deadly toxins as well as providing an influx of important nutrients that would otherwise be inaccessible. A remarkable study claiming to offer “the very first glimpses of what is inside and on the outside of birds” appeared last year in the journal Nature Communications noting that this adaptation, a kind of HAZMAT approach to digestion, is of fundamental importance not only to vultures but also to birds generally.
Study participant Gary Graves of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History notes that “The avian microbiome is terra incognita but it is not unreasonable to suppose that the relationship between birds and their microbes has been as important in avian evolution as the development of powered flight and song.” It’s thought that by understanding this immunity to poisonous intake, vultures could help us better control our own bacterial infections.
Still, the spectacle of Old World vultures hard at work, snapping and shoving to gain access to a meal, can be disconcerting, especially to sheltered Western eyes. Maybe it’s in the blood: Eurasian vultures are closely related to fearsome raptors, to hawks and eagles, whereas our more peaceable New World varieties — turkey, black, king and yellow-headed vultures, and even the condors — are believed to be derived from storks… not exactly a pacific group of birds (have you ever stared a shoebilled stork in the eye?) but not directly linked to the fearsome raptors of Order Accipitriformes.
Whatever the aesthetic challenges of their appearance and behavior, vultures play a critical role in cleansing our world of the detritus of life, and their loss would be insurmountable.
An invisible, insidious threat
Poison is the silent, caustic cousin to the assault rifles that garner so much deserved media coverage of the African wildlife wars. Poachers use poisons to hide evidence of their elephant and rhino kills — removing the kettles of soaring vultures that could alert authorities. African herders also use poison, often lacing the carcasses of dead livestock with inexpensive and easily obtainable pesticides such as carbofuran, to wipe out local lions and leopards that threaten their flocks. Tertiary casualties to these lingering toxins include all those animals without whose hunger the veldt would be littered with the dead: hyenas, jackals, marabou storks and vultures, the unlovely and unloved cleaning cartels that perform essential scavenging ecosystem services.
Dr. Ogada’s researchers make specific recommendations for the recovery of vultures, calling for African governments to “Effectively regulate the import, manufacture, sale, and use of poisons, including agricultural chemicals and pharmaceutical products known to be lethal to vultures,” and to adopt “stringent measures to prosecute and impose harsh penalties on perpetrators of poisoning and those illegally trading in vultures and/or their body parts.” Surprisingly, vulture heads are a prized trophy, and retain a mythic mystique even among some of the most urbanized segments of modern African society.
Let’s have a look at what species are most at stake, according to the June 2015 report, starting with the white-backed vulture. Distributed in scarcer and scarcer numbers from Mauretania to Ethiopia and down to South Africa, the white-backed vulture — whose moniker is only obvious when, from the dorsal view, deeply extended wings reveal a hidden, gleaming white undercoat from rump to shoulders — is one of the regulars likely seen in African wildlife documentaries, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their brethren in the scrums that occur at a carcass.
At up to 16 pounds, and with a six-to-seven-foot wingspan, the white-backed vulture qualifies as a middleweight in Africa. It possesses a threadbare ruffle of whitish feathers creeping over the snaky neck and top of the head, a lovely chestnut-daubed beige chest and belly and the thick black bill and stern eye of a highly competitive carnivore. Dr. Ogada refers to the white-backed as a “species that does not co-exist well around humans, which is undoubtedly a factor in its decline as human populations in Africa continue to soar.” IUCN Status: Endangered.
The Rüppell’s griffon vulture, another likely participant in the flyblown feeding frenzy, is thought to be the highest natural flyer on Earth, with confirmed sightings at an incredible 37,000 feet, the average altitude of a transatlantic commercial flight. They weigh up to 20 pounds, with an eight-foot wingspan, and are about the size of a bald eagle. The breast and belly are covered in chocolate feathers with starkly pale scaling, like a flaking mural, while the head and neck are lightly fuzzed around a hooked and horn-colored bill. Gregarious and generally observed floating attentively above herds of nervous ungulates or crowded atop an acacia, the Rüppell’s is another common African vulture — though it is becoming increasingly less so. IUCN Status: Endangered
The comparatively tiny, hooded vulture is another sub-Saharan resident who weighs in at five pounds and sports a skeletal pink face wrapped in a taupe hoodie, with a uniform mud-colored suit of heavy feathers. The thin bill indicates its position in the pecking order: unable to rip apart the sun-toughened hide or connective tissues of large prey, the hooded vulture waits patiently for its larger compatriots to do the heavy lifting, then darts in among the squabbling giants to snatch a bite where it can.
In recent times, the hooded vulture has become the chief means of protein waste disposal in many African villages and towns, gorging itself at slaughterhouses and trash dumps, and thus diminishing microbial concentrations and disposing of nourishment that would otherwise likely go to stray dogs. In India, the obliteration of native vultures has caused an explosive upswing in feral dog numbers, which has led to a surge in rabies, which Ogada’s team estimates has added $34 billion to healthcare costs in India between 1993 and 2006. With the steady loss of Africa’s vultures, a similar plague of dogs and rabies may await Africa. IUCN Status: Endangered.
The Conservation Letters paper lists two other species in dire, but somewhat more stable condition, the lappet-faced and white-headed vultures. The former is an enormous and volatile beast, the largest vulture in Africa with a wingspan similar to a California condor’s, a terrifyingly massive bill and a weight for females of 30 pounds (like most true raptors African vultures are sexually dimorphous, with females sometimes distinctly larger than males).
Surmounted by a ragged, glaring head evoking an enraged Dickensian barrister, the lappet-faced vulture, along with the exquisite marabou stork, is the most powerful and potentially aggressive of avian scavengers. It is often welcomed early into the initial ring around a carcass because, aside from hyenas, it is one of the few partakers capable of tearing through a desiccated elephant hide. Capable of wolfing down dried ligament and muscle that others can’t digest, the towering and austere lappet-faced often allows itself to be crowded out by its smaller brethren, as it awaits the stringy leftovers. IUCN Status: Vulnerable.
The last of Africa’s most threatened avian scavengers is the white-headed vulture. It is both the least discernibly attractive and yet perhaps the most reassuring of African vultures to the American birder, with a casual resemblance to our own turkey buzzard. The hot pink face and fierce eyes, a reddish bill mounted on delicate, shaded turquoise lores, even the ruffled white pantaloons suggest a raffish charm perhaps suitable to this poorly understood, solitary creature.
Long-lived and agile, closely skimming the treetops unlike its more atmospheric kin, the white-headed is generally one of the first at a carcass, but is soon pushed aside by larger, more aggressive birds. IUCN Status: Vulnerable.
A trade in “magical” vulture body parts
Unfortunately the mass poisoning of Africa’s vultures is not limited to protective herders and paranoid poachers. Some traditional African cultural beliefs grant these animals supernatural capabilities that are transferrable to humans in possession of their body parts.
“Certainly there are those Africans, particularly elders, who still have significant knowledge and respect for vultures and their services,” says Dr. Ogada. “On the negative side is the commercialization of traditional medicine involving vultures and their parts. Vultures are believed to be able to ‘see’ into the future, due to their excellent eyesight. So in the last decade or so, vultures have been increasingly harvested for traditional medicine / fetish [uses] to increase success in business ventures, to improve outcomes of gamblers, and to increase the success of children in school.”
The ancient veneration of the vultures’ exceptional vision has been coopted by the boomtown ethos of a rapidly urbanizing Africa, with Nigeria by far the worst country in terms of the trafficking in vultures and their parts. The demand in Nigerian cities is so strong that vultures are brought in from at least five neighboring countries, obviously with major implications for vulture populations throughout West and Central Africa.
Around 40 percent of vultures trafficked for traditional uses have been poisoned. Stricter — or indeed any — regulation by African governments of pesticides and other poisons, especially strychnine and cyanide, remains the most important requirement for reversing the crashing populations of these aerial scavengers.
Africa’s vultures now constitute some of the most endangered birds in the world, with a life cycle that can’t stand up to constant slaughter. These marvelous birds have long generational periods (around 16 years) and low fertility — a lone egg usually being produced each year — so they can’t rapidly replace the numbers poisoned by poachers, herders, and traffickers.
There are organizations working to preserve Africa’s winged wonders, including the African Wildlife Foundation, The Peregrine Fund, VulPro and BirdLife International. These groups are funding research and education while urging African governments to do more to reign in the lawless exploitation of wildlife that is common across the continent. While 38 countries in Africa ban the use of poisons for hunting, most lack meaningful statutory guidelines to reign in the indiscriminate use of poisons or pesticides, with lax enforcement, trivial fines and endemic corruption seriously hindering conservation efforts, particularly in northern Africa, where the majority of poisonings go unreported.
Researchers say that the only way to protect the vultures that remain is to sharply limit the availability of biocides and the acceptability of their use against wildlife. African leaders still have time — if they act decisively — to facilitate the recovery of these frontline defenders against disease and decay, and to preserve the fleeting shadows now vanishing all across Africa’s wild landscape.