Four of Africa’s 11 vulture species have been listed as critically endangered this year on an international “red list” of species under threat — the hooded vulture, the white-backed vulture, the white-headed vulture and Ruppell’s vulture, BusinessStandard reports.
Two other species — the Cape vulture or griffon and the lappet-faced vulture — have dropped in numbers from vulnerable to endangered, according to the latest assessment of birds on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, carried out by BirdLife International.
Vultures aren’t as charismatic as Africa’s Big 5 but photos of them scavenging a kill are staples in photo albums of most anyone who ever visited an African game reserve.
People don’t have much compassion for vultures, but conservationists say it will be bad news for everyone if they disappear, ChristianScienceMonitor reported. “Not only will the African landscape be riddled with decaying carcasses, but the populations of other, peskier scavengers such as rats and jackals could increase.”
Poisonings are the main causes of falling African vulture populations, according to the IUCN statement. Birds eat poisoned baits and their body parts are used in traditional medicine.
Vultures are deliberately targeted by poachers concerned that the birds of prey will alert authorities to illegal poaching activity including dead elephant and rhino carcasses.
Poachers poisoned almost 1,500 vultures in Southern Africa over the past two years, according to a report earlier this year by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. One of the worst cases was in Namibia in August 2014, when up to 600 vultures died after feeding on a single poisoned elephant carcass, TakePart reports.
Vultures fulfill a vital role in the food chain. Just one of their functions is to help stop the spread of diseases by cleaning up rotting carcasses.
“As well as robbing the African skies of one of their most iconic and spectacular groups of birds, the rapid decline of the continent’s vultures has profound consequences for its people,” said Julius Arinaitwe, Africa program director for BirdLife International.
It’s not too late to do something about it, Arinaitwe said.
“Now we are becoming aware of the sheer scale of the declines involved, there is still just enough time for conservationists to work with law-makers, faith-based organisations, government agencies and local people, to make sure there is a future for these magnificent scavengers,” he said in a prepared statement.
Worldwide, 40 more bird species in 2015 are classified as having a higher risk of extinction than in 2014, according to the Red List. It’s not all bad news; 23 bird species are considered less threatened than before.
Some species have recovered as a result of conservation including the Seychelles warbler, IUCN reports.
Just two vulture species in Africa are still in the category of “least concern,” NDTV reports. These are the griffon and the palm-nut vultures.
Habitat loss and collisions with wind turbines and electricity pylons are also contributing to vulture population declines, BusinessStandard reports.
In addition to cleaning up the landscape by feeding on carcasses, vultures reduce disease among animals, said Mark Anderson, a vulture expert in South Africa.
“The digestive tracts of vultures are so acidic that they destroy anthrax spores that would otherwise spread easily,” he said. “Vultures fulfill such an important role.”
Their role is critical in maintaining healthy ecosystems, said Simon Stuart, chairman of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. “Their decline can have serious knock-on effects on other species and the many benefits provided by nature. While it is encouraging to see some positive outcomes of conservation action, this update is an important wake-up call, showing that urgent efforts need to be taken to protect these species.”