Vultures – Soaring for Survival

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

Confronted with a task as hard as an ostrich egg, lesser scavengers may tremble. Not the Egyptian Vulture. One of evolution’s great problem-solvers, this resourceful raptor will set off in search of a fittingly sharp pebble. Once it has found one of the right measurements, it will swing its neck down and fling it upon the egg. If it doesn’t work the first time, it will try again. It almost always gets its dinner. It’s not just pebbles. The Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus)also uses twigs to roll up wisps of wool and take them back to line its nest. In ancient Egypt, the species was sacred to the goddess Isis and hailed as a figure of royalty, protected by law. It was so iconic and widespread that it was nicknamed the “Pharaoh’s Chicken” and even used as a hieroglyph. If only modern humanity had the same respect for this species. Today, it is facing challenges even the great problem-solver of the bird world can’t overcome. On its 5000-kilometre migration between European breeding grounds and sub-Saharan wintering grounds, it risks being poisoned by deadly farming chemicals, electrocuted by powerlines, or shot down by poachers and stuffed as macabre trophies.

Egyptian Vulture

These are not the only vultures in trouble. Three poached elephant carcasses were baited with poison, which led to 537 dead vulture deaths in Botswana. The vulture species comprised of 468 white-backed vultures, 28 hooded vultures, 17 white-headed vultures, 14 lappet-faced vultures and 10 Cape vultures. The law enforcement team attending the scene worked around the clock to disinfect the area, and sampling of carcasses and the environment was done for additional laboratory analysis.

White backed vulture

Members of the public in the vicinity have been requested to report any further wildlife deaths in their area, and to report any suspicious behaviour which may suggest environmental poisoning to the nearest wildlife office or the police. To make matters worse to the already threatened vulture populations is that this is the breeding season, and so many of the adult victims in this mass poisoning incident would have eggs or chicks, which will in all possibility die.

Southern Africa is home to eight vulture species. Despite being home to this many vulture species, most are endangered their endangered status is attributed to a combination of factors such as poisoning (hateful, accidental and secondary), drowning, electrocutions, power line collisions, traditional medicine trade and poor chick development due to calcium deficiencies, with further concerns now being raised over wind turbines.

Granted they may not have won first place in the beauty contest but vultures provide important ecosystem services. They dispose of carrion ‘providing a free and highly effective hygiene service’. They speed up body decomposition time and decrease the number of mammalian carcass visitors, which results in reduced contacts among mammalian scavengers at carcasses and suggests that vultures play a role in dropping levels of disease transmission that can cause human injury or death, such as feral dogs who may take up the slack of vultures jobs if and when vultures suffer extirpation. Vultures also play a key role in terms of waste-disposal services and nutrient cycling. As the sole obligate scavengers, vultures comprise a distinctive functional group among vertebrates and play an incomparable role in maintaining ecosystem balance. Yet, they are among the species most threatened with extinction.

Threats to Vultures

The primary threats facing global vulture populations are poisoning due to food sources containing lethal quantities of chemicals, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and pesticides, and direct persecution. The catastrophic vulture population declines in South Asia, which began in the 1990s have received a great deal of global attention. The principal cause of these declines has been identified as secondary poisoning resulting from the NSAIDs that are used to treat livestock but are lethal to vultures.

White backed vulture leaving its nest at dawn.

Replacing these services could entail substantial costs and added greenhouse gas emissions, for example, from the incineration of carcasses. In Europe, vultures are also threatened by food shortage following sanitary regulations or abandonment of traditional farming practices. Similar declines and local extirpations of the White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis, Slender-billed Vulture Gyps tenuirostris and Red-headed Vulture Sarcogyps calvus have been recorded across much of their native ranges in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand drove by secondary poisoning. These declines have led to the isolation of small but stable populations of these same species in Cambodia.

The extent of these threats and their significances on vulture population persistence varies across the world. To a lesser degree and in specific regions (e.g., Europe), poisoning may also occur when hunters attempt to control competitor carnivore populations. Overall, human-carnivore conflict is a strong cause of unintended poisoning risk. Collision with and electrocution on energy infrastructure, human disturbance, habitat degradation, and deterioration in food availability are further important threats to vultures.

Vulture Conservation

A study was done in 2018 to find out which areas were in critcal need of vulture conservation. The prioritizing analysis indicated the highest priority areas for vulture conservation across the world were concentrated in southern and eastern Africa, southern Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indian subcontinent. About 95% of the top-ranked 30% priority areas for vulture conservation in the region fell within Africa (51.6%) and Asia (43.5%), and within these southern Africa, East Africa, and South Asia each supported over 20% of the top 30% ranked areas for vulture conservation.

Although some of these actions, such as rapid response interventions on poisoning events and additional feeding stations, may reduce adverse impacts from threats such as poisoning, these are short-term solutions only. Essentially, actions of wide temporal and spatial scope and impact are needed. Among these, design and strong enforcement of targeted legislation would help restrict the distribution and use of drugs and poisons that threaten vultures. Similarly, severe regulations to ensure proper environmental impact assessments and planning would help reduce risks from wind energy and other infrastructure development in areas important for vulture conservation.

Vultures are targeted by poachers by lacing meat with poison.

It will be important to identify the relevant local stakeholders, such as communities, nongovernmental organizations, government institutions, private, and state-owned companies, and discuss the threats with a participatory, community-engaged approach. We found a positive relationship between national governance and the share of vulture priority areas. This indicates that vulture priority areas are more concentrated in countries with good governance than ones with bad. In many of these areas, vulture populations have declined prominently over the past decades, leading to a loss of their waste removal and potential disease regulating services. Although there has been recent progress to bring vulture conservation to the top of the international conservation science and policy agenda, there is now an urgent need to mobilize funds and implement action. Saving vultures is not only a matter of conservation ethics and principle but also about saving a unique functional guild that provides key ecosystem services. No other functional guild is dominated by a group of so few and yet so endangered species. A consortium of NGO and government partners have supported conservation of Cambodian vultures since 2004.

The situation in Africa entails that a number of environmental and cultural issues are addressed. These were outlined in a resolution to African governments by the participants of the 2012 Pan-Africa Vulture Summit, where the following specific recommendations were made.

(1) Effectively regulate the import, manufacture, sale, and use of poisons, including agricultural chemicals and pharmaceutical products known to be lethal to vultures.

(2) Legislate and enforce stringent measures to prosecute and impose harsh penalties on perpetrators of poisoning and those illegally trading in vultures and/or their body parts.

(3) Ensure appropriate levels of protection and management for vultures and their breeding sites.

(4) Ensure that all new energy infrastructure is vulture friendly and that existing unsafe infrastructure is modified accordingly.

(5) Support research, capacity building, and outreach programs for the conservation and survival of healthy vulture populations.

Due to the increase in poisoning vultures deliberately or unintentionally a lodge in Zimbabwe have begun feeding the vultures the previous night’s leftover meat. The tourists love it and has become very popular. Not only are the vultures getting a safe meal not laced with poison but while they are feasting the tourists are spoken to about how important these birds are to the ecosystem and what role they play.

Vultures like most other birds, roost in trees at night.

Take home message

In order to save vultures we need to change our mind set about them. We need to stop seeing them as ugly, disgusting birds but rather birds that are incredibly adapted to eat decaying meat and reducing spread of diseases. They are literally the dustbin men of the natural world and if they go extinct, more problems will arise such as feral dogs carrying rabies, burning of carcasses will only add to the crisis of climate change, not to mention diseases spreading like wildfire. Education and awareness need to be brought to rural areas to aid conservation efforts. For the man on the street you can give donations to reputable conservation organisations such as Birdlife and the Endangered Wildlife trust. So next time you come into contact with a vulture whether it be in a nature reserve, rehabilitation center or wildlife sanctuary rather than just dismissing it and moving on quickly to find the other animals, rather take some time and appreciate the important work these incredible birds do in the environment.

Vultures use heat thermals to soar high into the sky, in order to search for prey.


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