Sifelani Tsiko-Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
The recent launch of the Vulture Conservation Forum by BirdLife Africa – a platform of its network of partners and collaborators from more than 28 countries across the continent – is a great step that will help to save vultures that are now critically endangered and at high risk of extinction in Africa mainly due to poisoning.
The nature organisation said the forum will widen vulture conservation efforts through providing a platform for partners to share information, knowledge and lessons learnt, promote replication of best practices in vulture conservation and raise awareness on the value of vultures in Africa and the plight they face.
“The launch of this forum is historic,” said Ademola Ajagbe, BirdLife Africa regional director. “Since 2015, BirdLife partners have raised concerns about the drastic and widespread declines in vulture populations across Africa.
“These concerns have informed the Vulture Multi-species Action Plan (Vulture MsAP), adopted by Parties of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) in 2017.
“In 2018, BirdLife Africa partners singled out six key conservation initiatives areas, key among them, saving vultures. This launch marks the culmination of these efforts by BirdLife Africa partners to mobilise concerted actions and reverse the dangerous decline vulture populations on the continent face today.”
Vultures play a vital role in the environment, keeping it free of decaying carcasses, yet these majestic birds have experienced catastrophic declines around the world, with populations of all African vulture species plummeting by 70 to 97 percent over the last 50 years driven by poisoning, belief-based use, electrocutions and collision with power infrastructure among others.
Africa and most other parts in Asia and Europe were experiencing sudden and severe decline in vultures owing largely to poisoning.
And, experts warn that unless effective conservation measures are implemented, there is a significant likelihood that several of these species will become extinct in future, robbing the continent of a critical species of the ecosystem.
Vultures clean up rotting carcasses that pose health risks and can contain harmful diseases such as tuberculosis and rabies.
By doing this, experts say, vultures can help prevent the spread of diseases amongst humans and animals.
Southern Africa has over the past few years recorded devastating incidents of huge numbers of vultures dying from indirect and intentional poisoning.
In 2019, Botswana lost more than 537 critically endangered vultures after they fed on elephant carcasses that had been poisoned poachers while in 2013, Namibia also recorded one of the worst killings of vultures when between 400 and 600 of the birds were killed in a similar fashion in the Caprivi area of that country.
In 2017, a poisoned elephant carcass in the Gonarezhou National Park in the south – eastern part of Zimbabwe killed 94 critically endangered White Backed vultures.
Zimbabwe has recorded numerous vulture poisoning incidents that were impacting the populations between 2012 and 2019, according to a 2019 Zimbabwe Vulture Action Plan report.
Some of the notable vulture poisoning incidents reported include 191 vultures poisoned in Gonarezhou National Park (South-East Lowveld) in 2012, 40 vultures poisoned at a farm in Fort Rixon in 2014, 22 vultures poisoned in Sinamatella (Hwange National Park) in 2015, 43 vultures poisoned at Sentinel Ranch in 2016 (Masvingo), 94 vultures poisoned on the border of Gonarezhou National Park in 2017, 24 Vultures poisoned at Sengwa Wildlife Research Station in 2017 (Midlands) and in 2018, 28 vultures were poisoned in Main Camp (Hwange National Park).
The most recent poisoning incident occurred in Hwange National Park in January 2019 where 21 vultures were poisoned, according to the report.
“Whilst these are the significant incidences that have been reported, it is estimated that other sporadic poisoning events involving vultures are taking place for which no information is being received,” noted Fulton Mangwanya, director –general of Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) in the report.
“At this rate we will simply lose these valuable birds to extinction if action is not urgently taken to reverse the trend.”
In Zimbabwe, vultures are Specially Protected Species under the Parks and Wildlife Act.
Zimbabwe is a signatory to the Vulture Action plan which seeks to encourage multi-sectoral, national, regional and international collaboration to address threats to vultures.
This also involves awareness raising of the plight of vultures, their ecological importance and valuable ecosystem services and proposing solutions for African vulture conservation at the highest levels both nationally and regionally.
Birdlife experts say one poisoned elephant carcass can cause the death of up to 500 critically endangered vultures.
Birdlife experts say poisoning is being driven by human–wildlife conflicts and some people lace carcasses with poison to kill predators that threaten their livestock.
Vultures feed off carcasses laced with poison and die in huge numbers.
In some cases, poachers also actively target vultures to prevent them from exposing their activities to wardens by soaring above illegally killed game while in some cases vultures are killed for parts used for certain cultural practices.
Apart from poisoning, cultural beliefs still pose a huge threat to the vulture bird populations.
In some parts of Africa, many people believe that sprinkling minced body parts around the house or burying vulture heads beneath doorways will drive away evil spirits while other people say consuming the eyes of vultures will improve eyesight.
Some use their beaks for protection or their feet to heal fractured bones or make a person run faster.
Experts say tackling such beliefs is incredibly difficult and complex.
The Africa Vulture Conservation Forum will seek to improve cross border collaboration, enforcement and building capacity for wildlife crime prosecution as well as improving the availability of information.
“Africa has lost a significant number of vultures, today, these are the most threatened group of birds globally.
“Threats to vultures differ across regions in Africa and building on the initiatives and expertise of our network of partners and collaborators, the forum will help scale up conservation actions to address these threats holistically,” said Salisha Chandra, vulture conservation manager at BirdLife Africa.
“Further, coordinated and collaborative efforts involving all stakeholders, most importantly local and national authorities, are critical in this fight to save vultures.”
Vulture populations, particularly in Africa and Asia have plummeted over the past decades with all but seven of the 23 species now considered near threatened, vulnerable to extinction, endangered, or critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).