Flat-footed and massive-winged, they soar majestically on thermals -- some gliding more than 160 kilometres a day -- and keep the savannah's fine balance in check. Botfly larvae, rotting skin, anthrax and rabies -- they'll clean it all up. Tough and not afraid to fight, they'll swoop, pounce and caw at anyone getting in their way, including their much larger contemporaries, the hyena and jackal. Anyone except the human, it would seem, who are ironically the very reason they are on the verge of extinction.
Vultures will take on much larger scavengers, including hyena and jackal.
In the 1990s, vultures were virtually wiped out from India after mass poisoning by Dicloflenac, an anti-inflammatory painkiller that was widely used to treat cattle. The results were catastrophic. Without the vultures to clean up carcasses, stray dogs took up the role instead. As a result, dog and rat populations surged and went out of control, dog bites shot up, rabies proliferated and widespread deaths ensued, killing approximately 47,000 and cost India US $34 billion in health care. Consequently, vulture numbers of 3 key species in South Asia plummeted by more than 96% in less than 10 years. Specifically, the white-backed vulture fell by 99.7% in the same time frame. The balance, environmentally and economically, was thrown into shambles. The nation was in a disaster.
In Africa, the vultures are undergoing an alarming decline and a similar crisis could hit. After a key assessment in 2014, in one fell swoop, the conservation statuses of the hooded, white-backed, white-headed and Ruppell’s vulture, were swiftly upgraded to critically endangered. The Cape and Lappet-Faced vulture, the latter of which is the largest vulture on the continent, were also upgraded from vulnerable to endangered.
6 out of 11 species of African vulture are classified as critically endangered.
The reasons for their deaths are varied, yet all are caused by both unintentional and intentional human action. One-third of vultures killed in Africa are for traditional medicine: their body parts are used to create various treatments, believed to be cures, and are heavily used in witchcraft. The heights at which they fly also means they collide with wind turbines and power lines, resulting in instant death by impact or electrocution.
Poisoning is the main cause of deaths of vultures in Africa.
The most significant cause of deaths of vultures in Africa, however, is by poison. Pastoralists will leave poisoned carcasses out in an attempt to kill predators including lion, jackals and hyena that could potentially prey on their livestock. Either the vulture eats the poisoned carcass directly, or a creature who has died from ingesting the laced bait. An untimely death ensues, and the poison rapidly enters the veins of the ecosystem and will fluidly move through the chain of organisms. One by one, each creature it touches will potentially die. Additionally, poachers of elephant tusks and ivory horn poison the vultures in an attempt to mask their tracks, which would otherwise be revealed by flying vultures circling overhead. These sharp-eyed birds can spot carcasses from a mile away, which is usually a blessing, but in these circumstances, is a complete curse.
The agent used is Furadan, a cheap agricultural pesticide that is readily available across the continent. They come in purple granules and are sometimes called ‘Lion Killer’, and there’s no surprise as to why- the poison is acutely toxic and when used in large doses, can kill even the largest of predators or an entire colony of vultures. Sadly, many pastoralists continue to illegally misuse this poison in a desperate attempt to protect their livestock, the blood of their livelihood.
About 8 years ago, the manufacturer, FMC, is said to have withdrawn the poison from shelves after the poisoning cases were revealed. Today, deaths by poisoning continue, so Furadan, or a close substitute, continues to linger in the market while it sends the vultures as a whole into an alarming and critical decline. As cases of poisoning are hard to regulate and prove, conservationists have been calling for a complete ban of the pesticide. While this could make sense in the short term, the much deeper issue that needs to be urgently addressed remains at the fore: human-wildlife conflict. As unchecked development expands and crawls across the land, pastoralists are being forced to lead their livestock to graze increasingly closer to wildlife conservancies, and many times, within them.
In a region where many rural farmers live hand-to-mouth, Furadan is a small price to pay for the added sense of protection and assurance. Ultimately however, the enormous price paid by nature is far-reaching and not only takes the lives of the vultures, but affects all the other creatures that share the same land. The poison remains in the environment for a long time. If it doesn’t instantly kill wildlife, the run-off from the soil contaminates dams, rivers and drinking water, potentially killing large swaths of these creatures of the wild.
Addressing human-wildlife conflict through existing education and awareness campaigns must continue, and the regulation of the use of poisons should be legislated. Strengthened efforts to tackle the illegal wildlife trade of vulture parts for traditional medicine is also needed, as is ensuring that power and wind infrastructure is bird-friendly. Moreover, conversations that move this issue out of conservation and scientific circles and into the mainstream need to be made, where governments can show the political will to support organisations to literally save the lives of these birds.
This is no doubt an urgent conservation priority, but it needs to be highlighted as an economic development priority for it to gain more attention. If effective management plans to protect the vultures of Africa are not made soon, the prognosis is poor: within the next 50-100 years, the vultures of Africa will be gone. If that happens, and if the case in India is anything to go by, there is no doubt that anarchy will ensue: ecosystems will be ridden with disease and thrown into an unsustainable imbalance, thousands of creatures will be killed in its wake, and humans will suffer on a continent-wide scale.
Vultures are not often in the limelight, but they must be, now more than ever, in order to ensure they don’t vanish- for the world will struggle to function without them.
As featured on Huffington Post.