Development

The vultures aren’t hovering over Africa – and that’s bad news

It’s hard to love vultures. Their bare-headed appearance, scavenging habits and reputation as the refuse disposal workers of the bird world rarely endear them to a public who prefer more conventionally attractive creatures. But amid growing fears that the birds are facing extinction, conservationists are calling for more to be done to save these unloved birds of prey.

If this seems like old news, that’s because for some species it is. In the early 1990s, observers in India began to notice that vultures, which usually gathered in huge flocks around animal carcasses, were declining at an unprecedented rate.

An Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus).
 An Egyptian vulture ( Neophron percnopterus). Photograph: Chris Hellier/Alamy

At first, conservationists found this hard to believe: vultures are among the most adaptable of all the world’s birds and have learned to live alongside human beings, serving as the clean-up squads in urban and rural areas alike.

But in just 15 years, from 1992 to 2007, India’s most common three vulture species declined by between 97% and 99.9%. The consequences were catastrophic: only once the vultures had gone did people realise the crucial job they had been doing in clearing up the corpses of domestic and wild animals. Rotting carcasses contaminated water supplies, while rats and feral dogs multiplied, leading to a huge increase in the risk of disease for humans.

More than a decade after the crisis began, the key cause was confirmed. Asia’s vultures were feeding on animal carcasses containing diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug routinely given to domestic cattle but poisonous to birds.

Now, a similar story is unfolding in Africa, which is home to 11 of the world’s 16 old world vulture species. They are found in towns and cities as well as in the savannah, where again they perform the vital role of the clean-up squad.

From Kenya to Ethiopia, Botswana and South Africa, these birds have been a reassuring and seemingly permanent presence wherever big game animals roam. But now there are signs that Africa’s vulture populations are also plummeting at an alarming rate.

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