Vultures are crucial to the ecosystem, helping to prevent the spread of disease. African vulture conservation is essential to halt the decline of African vulture species and save these birds for future generations.
AFRICAN VULTURE CONSERVATION: GUARDIANS OF THE ECOSYSTEM
Words & Images by Diana Andersen
A solitary vulture leans over the carcass of a wildebeest on the Masai Mara. Instead of feasting on the animal, the vulture looks around, surveying the surrounding area. Why is it waiting? Surely the smart thing to do would be to gorge on the carcass before any competition arrives. Other birds begin to come, including white-backed vultures and a marabou stork, aptly named the ‘undertaker’ bird, but they land and watch like the first. This behaviour is not the frenzied feeding activity we expect from vultures!
The answer lies in the carcass and the species. The wildebeest has not been killed but has died of old age, disease or perhaps injury, one of many wildebeest that will die during the great migration. The vulture is a Rüppell’s vulture. Despite being a voracious diner that can eat most parts of the animal, including bones, it cannot open a carcass by penetrating the tough hide of the animal.
They wait for the arrival of the powerful but endangered lappet-faced vultures or other predators and scavengers capable of penetrating the hide. All the Rüppell’s vulture can do at this stage is wait and position itself well for a feed should help arrive. However, with dramatically declining numbers of apex predators, vultures, and other scavenging species, there may come a time when help does not arrive.
A Rüppell’s vulture on an unopened carcass in Kenya.
The Role of Vultures in the Ecosystem
What happens if carcasses remain uneaten? Eventually, a rotting animal will swell with fly larvae, burst and lead to a boom in insect populations, dramatically increasing the risk of pathogen spread to other animals, livestock and humans. Vultures are estimated to dispose of 70% of the animal carcasses in Africa, helping prevent the spread of anthrax, cholera, botulinum toxins, rabies, and other diseases. This is because their highly acidic digestive system can digest rotting and diseased flesh without ill effects.
Imagine how quickly society would deteriorate if garbage collectors disappeared. Belonging to the raptor family, vultures are nature’s garbage collectors. Unlike others of this group, such as eagles and owls, vultures do not hunt for themselves but feed almost exclusively on carcasses. There is evidence that the largest, most aggressive species, the lappet-faced vulture, may occasionally take small animals, reptiles and birds, but carrion is their staple diet. Without vulture conservation efforts, the future of the birds is grim.
Rüppell’s vulture on a rotting carcass.
Feeding Habits of African Vultures
On an open carcass, each species has its individual feeding preferences. The dominant lappet-faced prefers ligaments, muscles, tendons, and skin over soft tissue. Smaller species, including the white-backed vulture and Rüppell’s vulture, devour meat and soft tissue and eventually bone when little else is left. White-headed vultures are less aggressive feeders, but they can eat any part of the animal except the skin. Referred to as ‘clean feeders’, they prefer to remove pieces of meat to eat away from the carcass and pick at tendons and bones.
The critically endangered hooded vultures, the smallest of all the species, have a more slender beak allowing them to pick away at the parts of the carcass that are harder to reach. Within hours, the frenzied feeding of a group of vultures, commonly called a wake of vultures, leaves little to nothing behind. The loss of any species of vulture is something that the ecosystem can ill afford.
White-backed and Rüppell’s Vultures on a Zebra Kill
The Decline of Vulture Numbers in Africa
Part of human nature is that we consider some animals to be beautiful and others not. A swan elicits a warm response from people. In contrast, vultures are considered vile, disgusting, ugly creatures. Despite how crucial their existence is to the ecosystem, it is unfortunate from a conservation point of view for a species to be considered unappealing. It is always easier to raise concerns and conservation support for a beautiful, iconic or cute species than those that are less attractive or are reviled by society.
Vultures certainly fall into the category of being physically less appealing to most than many other species and are now the most threatened of all bird groups, with more than half of the vulture species in existence now facing extinction. Even though vultures play a crucial role in the ecosystem, their struggle for survival fails to evoke the same interest or attract the same attention and support as more appealing species. Myths associated with vultures, their association with death, and their appearance and eating habits do little to help their situation.
African vultures belong to a group referred to as ‘Old World’ vultures. ‘Old World’ refers to the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. There are sixteen species of Old World vultures, and Africa is home to eleven species, eight of which have declined by an average of 62% in the past 30 years. White-backed vulture numbers have declined by around 90%, and conservation efforts are crucial to prevent extinction.
Poachers and African Vulture Conservation
Capable of extraordinary flight both in height and distance, vultures scour the African plains looking for food. Rüppell’s vultures can reach heights of 11,000 feet (3.35 kilometres). Thermals help them gain altitude and cover long distances with as little effort as possible. They have keen eyes and locate carcasses by watching other vultures’ circling behaviour that may have spotted a potential feed.
The sight of this circling behaviour is one of Africa’s most iconic images, but one that also threatens the survival of vultures. It is used by the authorities to locate the illegal activities of poachers who have killed elephants, rhino and other animals. The poachers, in turn, are poisoning the carcasses after removing what they want to eradicate these birds and avoid detection.
Rüppell’s vulture in flight.
Vulture Poisoning and the Bushmeat Trade
In 2019, more than 530 vultures were found dead in Botswana. The birds had fed on elephant carcasses that the poachers had poisoned to evade detection. The vulture kill included 468 critically endangered white-backed vultures and did not include the numbers of young birds that were potentially lost away from the site due to parent birds’ death. The estimated loss was probably closer to 1500 birds. The loss of such a large number of birds is devastating to the survival of the species. With many birds descending to feed, a single poisoned carcass can take a terrible toll.
Vulture populations are targeted by poachers trading in illegal bushmeat and body parts. As poachers often use poison to kill the vultures, vulture bushmeat consumption also poses a threat to humans. Body parts are also in demand for use in traditional medicine. Believing that the body parts have medicinal properties, traditional healers use them for treating a range of medical conditions. Believed to be a good luck charm, the head of a vulture is meant to provide the person possessing the head with the ability to predict the future through dreams. This belief makes them highly prized by gamblers and people hoping to predict lottery numbers.
Other Threats to African Vulture Conservation
Indirect poisoning is also a problem. Many African subsistence farmers can ill afford the loss of even a small number of livestock, so they use baits poisoned with the pesticides Furadan and aldicarb to eradicate predators that threaten their livestock. Birds feeding on the baits and the deceased predators also fall victim. The use of veterinary medicines to treat farm animals also results in secondary poisoning. Used as an anti-inflammatory treatment in livestock, the drug Diclofenac is toxic to vultures. It proves fatal when vultures feed on deceased animals treated with the medication.
Like many other wildlife species, loss of habitat from expanding human populations results in diminished food sources and nesting sites. Vultures have a long breeding cycle with small numbers of eggs and young being produced. White-backed vultures only raise one chick per year, so recovery from losses is a slow process. Survival rates amongst immature birds are considerably lower than older birds, so the loss of older birds can rapidly decline in numbers. Vultures are mistakenly perceived as pests by some cultures and are persecuted and killed, and with their massive wingspan, electrocution from collisions with power lines is also a contributing factor.
Hooded vulture in flight.
Combating the Decline in Vulture Numbers Through Conservation
Like most conservation efforts, raising awareness is the first hurdle, followed by education on the causes and consequences of a failure to act. In the case of vultures, raising awareness is necessary given the birds’ poor public image. Making people aware of the consequences of using or purchasing vulture body parts are essential. Promoting the use of ‘green medications’ in livestock and lobbying the government to ban toxic pesticides such as Furadan and Aldicarb is an important step. These actions are crucial to the survival of these guardians of the ecosystem.
Vulture Restaurants and African Vulture Conservation.
Vulture restaurants are one conservation method used to educate visitors about the crucial role the birds play in the environment and provide a safe feeding area for vultures to feed regularly. They offer the opportunity to raise awareness and educate visitors on the importance of preserving these birds for a healthy ecosystem.
Organizations such as Vulpro and the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust also research vultures by monitoring nest sites and numbers and following animals’ movements using satellite tracking tags. A better understanding of the range and habits of these birds will aid in their conservation. Vulpro also rescues and rehabilitates injured and orphaned birds and has captive breeding programs for birds that cannot be released.
White-backed and Hooded Vultures waiting to feed at a vulture restaurant.
Donations are crucial to helping these organizations to fund their research and conservation efforts. It may be easier to fundraise for elephants or more appealing species. However, we should be mindful that being immune to the diseases that kill their prey, such as anthrax and rabies, vultures prevent the spread of these diseases. Without them, we could lose many other species, including lions, elephants, painted dogs and even see the transmission of these diseases to humans. Like them or not, the world needs vultures and vultures need our support.
African Vulture Species
Lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotos) Endangered
Cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres) Endangered
Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) Endangered
Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) Near Threatened
Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) Least Concern
Palm-nut Vulture (Gypohierax angolensis) Least Concern
Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus) Near Threatened
White-headed vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) Critically Endangered
Hooded Vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus) Critically Endangered
Rüppell’s Vulture (Gyps rueppelli) Critically Endangered
White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus) Critically Endangered
White-backed vulture (left) and a Rüppell’s vulture (right)