In Africa it is estimated that vultures consume over 70 per cent of all carcasses in savannah ecosystems, thus performing a vital role akin to a clean-up crew, picking up the carnivores’ left-overs and nipping any diseases or infections in the bud. Vultures can digest anthrax (and pretty much everything else)- a capability evolved over millions of years of taking out the trash. A carcass with 50 attendant vultures can be stripped to the bone in 20 minutes, where without any vulture presence, will take two weeks to decompose, acting as a festering breeding ground for all sorts of pathogens.
It is therefore unfortunate that this function seems finite: over the last three decades, vulture numbers all over Africa have dropped 70 per cent. The hardest hit is west Africa, where some species have declined by 97 per cent. Of our seven species, four are classified as endangered, two as vulnerable, and the last as near threatened (the Lammergeyer, saved only by a healthy European population).
Unlike in Asia, where the culprit was the inadvertent poisoning by Sodium Diclofenac, the problems faced by vultures in Africa are far more sinister and insidious, and often intentional. The main threat is secondary poisoning: when livestock are lost to predators, retaliation is often the first response. The carcass would be found and laced with a lethal carbamate poison, Furadan, which kills everything from flies to hippos, not only the hyaena that wanted a quick snack.
Such incidents are common (although few are found or reported and at times as few as 1 in 10 poisonings are discovered, by some estimates), and turn into massacres on a huge scale as the poison stays active for weeks. One incident in Kenya in 2007 killed 187 vultures, another in Namibia in 2013 accounted for over 600. When you consider that each pair of vultures can only produce one chick a year, and more often one every 2 years, there seems to be little hope about any recovery. Vultures are often deliberately targeted, for the traditional medicine trade known as Muti, prevalent in south and west Africa, where they are thought to impart the gift of clairvoyance, once consumed.
Imagine how hard vultures get hit during the World Cup! Elsewhere, poachers who target elephants and rhinos kill them simply because soaring vultures are a big sign that there’s something dead down below, thus alerting the authorities to their illegal activities. If the Asian Vulture Crisis is anything to go by, where vulture numbers in India and Pakistan dropped by 99.9 per cent in the 1990s and early 2000s, the consequences are dire. Piles and piles of uneaten and putrefying carcasses littering the savannahs can quickly become a health hazard, and by removing one guild of scavengers, another may quickly slot into their niche. These are not always welcome. The 80 million vultures in northern India have been replaced by an estimated 18 million feral dogs, which spread disease, and kill small children.
A colleague, Dr Darcy Ogada from the Peregrine Fund puts it rather astutely: ‘In India, the almost complete disappearance of vultures has resulted in a strong increase of the feral dog population and associated rabies incidents, which have been estimated to have cost $34 billion [in 2011] in human health costs alone. It is shocking that nobody seems to be worried about the massive vulture decline we are now witnessing across Africa.’
Thankfully, people are becoming worried, but would it be too late? As I write, plans to turn over a breeding site of great importance to Ruppell’s Vultures in Hell’s Gate National Park in central Kenya have been given a green light.Windfarms are popping up all over the place, bringing us limitless, clean power, but shredding large birds up by the million. Another colony in southern Kenya has better chances at survival- a good start would be to go and see it for yourselves, and maybe start to appreciate how important these gorgeous birds are.