Vultures get a bad rap, but these big scavengers are among the most important links in the food chain. Now, thanks to indiscriminate poisoning, collisions with wind turbines and powerlines, and superstitious beliefs, most of Africa’s vultures could go extinct within the 50 to 100 years, according to a new report from BirdLife International for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™.
Though they aren’t the cuddliest of birds, vultures play a crucial role in the ecosystem by eating carcasses that would otherwise be left to rot and spread disease. Yet, vulture populations have dropped sharply across the entire African continent, according to a recent study published in the journal Conservation Letters. Many of the African species are already extinct or have severely declined in several countries, Matt McCall reports for National Geographic.
“Vultures are important. They come in, they clean up and they leave,” Ross Wanless of BirdLife South Africa tells Ed Stoddard for Reuters. “Other scavengers like rats and jackals will eat a carcass and then will go after livestock or become a pest to humans. And if vultures are removed, their numbers can increase.“
Since 2012, scientists led by Darcy Ogada of the Idaho-based Peregrine Fund have combed through vulture population studies and surveys dating back to the 1960s. Ogada’s team found that since the 1970s, as many as 60 percent of all vulture deaths in Africa can be linked to poisoning from eating animal carcasses laced with pesticides intended to kill large predators like lions.
Sometimes when a lion goes after a farmer’s livestock, they will seed the dead animal with pesticides to poison the big cat in revenge. While the practice is illegal, it is rarely prosecuted and often kills local vultures long before the intended target, McCall writes. Poachers will also poison carcasses to target vulture specifically, as conservationists often track illegal hunts by following vulture flocks. The birds’ body parts are also occasionally used by local witch doctors to practice magic rituals.
“Their decline can have serious knock-on effects on other species and the many benefits provided by nature,” Simon Stuart, Chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission said in a statement.
To see what could happen if Africa’s vultures go extinct, just look towards India. During the 1990s, India’s vulture populations were obliterated due to liver failure caused by a popular drug used to treat sick livestock. McCall writes:
Without the aerial cleanup crew, feral dogs took up the role as scavengers. As the dog population exploded, so did diseases such as rabies—of the 55,000 annual rabies deaths worldwide, 20,000 occur in India.
The cost to public health was enormous: Healthcare costs climbed by an estimated $34 billion in India between 1993 and 2006, according to [David Allen, the Durban Natural Science Museum’s bird curator].
With few vultures to compete with, scavengers like rats, hyenas and jackals could skyrocket and spread disease in many of Africa’s rapidly growing cities. For now, Ogada says the best hope for vulture survival is for governments to start cracking down on illegal pesticide use and educate locals on their dangers, reports McCall.
“While it is encouraging to see some positive outcomes of conservation action, this update is an important wake-up call, showing that urgent efforts need to be taken to protect these species,” Stuart said in a statement.
For more on the vultures' plight, check out McCall's story on National Geographic.