By Opija Raduk

Vultures are on the brink of extinction across Africa which poses a serious risk to human health considering the role they play in preventing the spread of life-threatening diseases by consuming carcasses.

An international team of researchers, including leading scientists from National Museums of Kenya, Endangered Wildlife Trust, Makerere University and The Peregrine Fund, say African vultures are likely to qualify as ‘Critically Endangered’ under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) global threat criteria.

“Large declines of Africa’s vultures should ring alarm bells due to their immense ecological importance. Vultures are a vital component of a healthy environment, especially in Africa, where ‘free’ ecosystem services such as disposal of carcasses and other waste products remain the norm,” says Dr. Darcy Ogada of The Peregrine Fund and National Museums of Kenya, “If we don’t take urgent steps to save these birds, and in particular to curtail wildlife poisoning, we should expect long-term consequences for the environment, as well as for humans in Africa.”

Vulture populations globally are declining rapidly primarily due to intentional and unintentional poisoning but also from habitat loss, energy expansion, and lack of food. As a result, they are considered one of the most threatened groups of animals in the world.

Africa has eleven species of vulture, of which six are found nowhere else. Six of the eight species that occur in Kenya are highly threatened with extinction according to the IUCN Red List of threatened species. This means that without conservation intervention, these species have very little chance of survival and may possibly go extinct within our lifetimes.

“There has been a substantial increase in the number of reported mortalities of vultures in Southern Africa resulting from poisoning and interactions with energy infrastructure since 2011. There are very real concerns that the region’s vulture populations cannot be sustained with these losses and, considering the range of other threats that also impact on these birds,” says Mr. Andre Botha of Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Vultures are carnivorous and eat dead animals almost exclusively. They prefer fresh meat but can consume carcasses that have rotted so much that the meat can be toxic to other animals. This gives vultures a unique and important ecological role because they help prevent the spread of diseases from old, rotting corpses.

According to National Geographic, a vulture’s stomach acid is significantly stronger and more corrosive than that of other animals or birds. This allows these scavengers to feed on rotting carcasses that may be infected with dangerous bacteria because the acid will kill that bacteria, so it does not threaten the vulture.

Vultures are often overlooked as lowly scavengers. However, they are a key component to maintaining healthy ecosystems. Because of their role as nature’s garbage disposers, vultures are able to keep the environment clean and free of contagious diseases. These scavenged leftovers are often infected with anthrax, botulinum toxins, rabies, and hog cholera that would otherwise kill other scavengers. By ridding the ground of dead animals, vultures prevent diseases from spreading to humans and animals

Despite vultures’ contribution to the ecosystem, they face another major challenge. Because they attract attention to illegal poaching activities, they have become the number one enemy of poachers. A common practice of many poachers is to poison the carcasses left behind after removing tusks and horns from elephants and rhinos. The poachers do this to kill off the vultures so that they can continue their illegal work undetected.

One example of this occurred in Namibia in July of 2013, when over 500 scavenger birds, including vultures, were poisoned from a single elephant carcass. It is important to remember that in addition to these direct deaths, others were killed indirectly. Many of these birds quite likely left behind offspring which were relying on their parents to bring food back to the nest. Experts claim that this poisoning case is one of the worst in the history of Southern Africa.

Several cultures have superstitions about vultures, such as the birds being indicators of death, or else people may mistakenly believe the birds are a threat to healthy livestock. While vultures actually prevent deaths by eliminating carcasses that could harbour infectious diseases and they will not attack healthy livestock, people still illegally hunt the birds or drive them away from food sources. The birds are also poached as trophies or for illegal feather trading. Contacts: darcyogada@yahoo.com and andreb@ewt.org.za

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