On the first Saturday of September every year, the world celebrates the International Vulture Awareness Day (IVAD) to raise awareness about the plight of vultures. These magnificent birds are staring at a bleak future with their populations having declined catastrophically by up to 97% for some species over the last 50 years. While vultures are often viewed as sinister, signifying bad tidings, or even death, the vital role that they play in the environment is irreplaceable.
Acting as Nature’s own clean-up crew, these endangered birds remove carcasses from the environment, which when accumulated in the environment would have a negative impact on environmental and human health. The loss of these unique scavengers can have a devastating impact as witnessed in Asia in the 1990s, where vulture populations crashed by up to 99% after feeding on cattle carcasses containing diclofenac – a veterinary drug toxic to vultures.
As a result, other scavengers including rats and dogs increased in number, leading to increased disease transmission from carcasses to animals and humans, particularly an increase in the number of cases of humans infected with rabies were reported.
Across Africa, vultures are faced with various threats. Poisoning is the major cause of vulture mortalities on the continent. In some instances, poachers lace carcasses with poison to kill vultures, as they alert authorities of poaching activities. In other cases, vultures are killed unintentionally, when herders lace carcasses with poison to kill predators in retaliatory killings, and vultures die after feeding on these carcasses.
Belief-based use is another threat facing vultures on the continent, where vultures’ parts are used to make traditional medicine to cure ailments or imbue partakers with magical powers or bring good luck. In addition, energy infrastructure being developed on the content, is responsible for vulture deaths through collisions or electrocutions.
BirdLife International, the world’s largest partnership, is working with its network of partners to stem this decline. A key element of this work is working with local communities to deliver cross-cutting conservation interventions. To address the threat of poisoning, BirdLife and partners are developing a poisoning response network in East Africa to create a platform for collaboration and coordination among stakeholders to address the threat of wildlife poisoning and ensure rapid and effective responses to poisoning incidences.
In Southern Africa, BirdLife, and partners working with landowners, managers and local communities have established more than 1,000,000 hectares of Vulture Safe Zones (VSZs) in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa where vultures can feed and breed without the risk of poisoning.
To tackle the belief-based use threat to vultures, BirdLife is working with local stakeholders including traditional healers to create awareness of the impact of their trade on vultures and mainstreaming the use of sustainable plant-based treatments as alternatives to vulture parts. Furthermore, BirdLife is working with partners to ensure bird-safe energy infrastructure through retrofitting, dangerous powerlines.
In Ethiopia, for instance, BirdLife has retrofitted 182 poles in the country’s Central and Eastern regions in 2023. These poles have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of birds, particularly the Egyptian Vulture, a globally endangered species.
In addition, to the conservation interventions, BirdLife partners are carrying out awareness campaigns on the plight of these endangered birds, which are beginning to bear fruit. In North Africa, the Griffon Vulture is finally breeding in Morocco after a 40-year absence, while a West Africa Vulture Conservation Action Plan (WAVCAP) is being developed.
As we mark International Vulture Awareness Day, it is imperative that we redouble our efforts to save Africa’s vultures from extinction.
By Fadzai Matsvimbo, Preventing Extinctions Programme Coordinator for Africa at BirdLife International (email@example.com)