Vultures in Peril

Vultures are a characteristic and important part of Africa’s ecosystems. As obligate scavengers, they play an important role in preventing the spread of disease, by quickly removing decomposing carcasses from the environment. Recent decades have seen an alarming decline in Africa’s vulture populations, with four of South Africa’s nine vulture species now regarded as Critically Endangered.

The reasons for the decline of Africa’s vultures are numerous and complex. Poachers kill great numbers of vultures by intentionally lacing poached animal carcasses with poison. Vultures are also vulnerable to secondary poisoning by the veterinary drug diclofenac, or unintentional poisoning through the ingestion of lead ammunition. Other threats include electrocution and/or collisions with power infrastructure, declining food availability, habitat loss and harvesting for belief-based use.

BirdLife South Africa is committed to the conservation of Africa’s vulture populations across all their range states, and have joined multiple stakeholders across the African continent in an effort to reverse this dramatic population declines. A collaborative proposal to the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in the USA has been successful. A selected team of researchers from countries across Africa (including representatives from BirdLife South Africa) will travel to Annapolis (USA) for four meetings over the course of two years, during which an impressive array of data tools and resources will be placed at their disposal to develop tools for the conservation of Africa’s vultures. The first meeting will take place in October 2017.

Vultures and Lead

Lead is a toxic heavy metal that serves no known biological function in any living organism. Its usefulness and malleability as a metal has made it pervasive in many aspects of human society and industry, from the ammunition in our rifles to the batteries that drive our cars. Remarkably, its popularity persists, despite the fact that its harmful effects on human and animal health have been documented since Roman times.

Modern research has linked lead to decreased intelligence, hearing loss, hyperactivity and, most recently, to aggression and violent behaviour. In birds lead exposure has been shown to effect most of the important biological pathways, including the cardiovascular, renal, hematopoietic (relating to the creation of new red blood cells), gastrointestinal, reproductive and nervous systems. Even low-level chronic exposure could result in animals that may be less fit and more prone to weakness, starvation, impaired neurological function, lower reproductive capability and even mortality. Scavengers, apex predators and waterbirds are particularly at risk, as they are more likely to be exposed to anthropogenic sources of lead such as lead shot and other spent ammunition.

As obligate scavengers, vultures are especially susceptible to dietary toxins, and are now regarded as one of the most threatened functional guilds in the world. In view of this, BirdLife South Africa has launched a project that would entail a systematic, nationwide assessment of the levels of lead toxicosis in South Africa’s birds in general, and in scavenging raptors in particular.