Vultures – Soaring for Survival

Vultures – Soaring for Survival

Confronted with a task as hard as an ostrich egg, lesser scavengers may tremble, not the Egyptian Vulture. One of evolution’s great problem-solvers, these resourceful vultures will set off in search of a fittingly sharp pebble. Once it has found one of the right measurements, it will swing its neck down and fling it upon the egg. If it doesn’t work the first time, it will try again. It almost always gets its dinner. It’s not just pebbles. The Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus also uses twigs to roll up wisps of wool and take them back to line its nest.

In ancient Egypt, the species was sacred to the goddess Isis and hailed as a figure of royalty, protected by law. It was so iconic and widespread that it was nicknamed the “Pharaoh’s Chicken” and even used as a hieroglyph. If only modern humanity had the same respect for this species. (article from birdlife – Jessica Law)

The challenges that face vultures

Today, it is facing challenges even the great problem-solver of the bird world can’t overcome. On its 5000-kilometre migration between European breeding grounds and sub-Saharan wintering grounds, it risks being poisoned by deadly farming chemicals, electrocuted by power lines, or shot down by poachers and stuffed as macabre trophies.

Egyptian Vulture

These are not the only vultures in trouble. Three poached elephant carcasses were baited with poison, which led to 537 dead vulture deaths in Botswana. The vulture species comprised of 468 white-backed vultures, 28 hooded vultures, 17 white-headed vultures, 14 lappet-faced vultures and 10 Cape vultures. The law enforcement team attending the scene worked around the clock to disinfect the area. Sampling of carcasses and the surrounding environment was done for additional laboratory analysis.

Members of the public in the vicinity were requested to report any further wildlife deaths in their area, and to report any suspicious behavior which may suggest environmental poisoning to the nearest wildlife office or the police. To make matters worse to the already threatened vulture populations is that this is the breeding season, and so many of the adult victims in this mass poisoning incident would have eggs or chicks, which will in all possibility die.

South African Vultures

Southern Africa is home to eight vulture species. Despite being home to this many vulture species, most are endangered: their endangered status is attributed to a combination of factors such as poisoning (hateful, accidental and secondary), drowning, electrocutions, power line collisions, traditional medicine trade and poor chick development due to calcium deficiencies, with further concerns now being raised over wind turbines.

White Backed Vulture

Granted they’ve not won first place in the beauty contests but vultures provide important ecosystem services. They dispose of carrion ‘providing a free and highly effective hygiene service’. They speed up body decomposition time and decrease the number of mammalian carcass visitors, which results in reduced contacts among mammalian scavengers at carcasses and suggests that vultures play a role in dropping levels of disease transmission that can cause human injury or death, such as feral dogs who may take up the slack of vultures jobs if and when vultures suffer extirpation.

Vultures also play a key role in terms of waste-disposal services and nutrient cycling. As the sole obligate scavengers, vultures comprise a distinctive functional group among vertebrates and play an incomparable role in maintaining ecosystem balance. Yet, they are among the species most threatened with extinction.

Threats to Vultures

The primary threats facing global vulture populations are poisoning due to food sources containing lethal quantities of chemicals, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and pesticides plus direct persecution. The catastrophic vulture population declines in South Asia, which began in the 1990s have received a great deal of global attention. The principal cause of these declines has been identified as secondary poisoning resulting from the NSAIDs that are used to treat livestock but are lethal to vultures.

This is the sad reality of what happens to vultures worldwide.

Replacing these services could entail substantial costs and added greenhouse gas emissions, for example, from the incineration of carcasses. In Europe, vultures are also threatened by food shortage following sanitary regulations or abandonment of traditional farming practices. Similar declines and local extirpation of the White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis, Slender-billed Vulture Gyps tenuirostris and Red-headed Vulture Sarcogyps calvus have been recorded across much of their native ranges in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand driven by secondary poisoning. These declines have led to the isolation of small but stable populations of these same species in Cambodia.

The extent of these threats and their significance on vulture population persistence varies across the world. To a lesser degree and in specific regions (e.g., Europe), poisoning may also occur when hunters attempt to control competitor carnivore populations. Overall, human-carnivore conflict is a strong cause of unintended poisoning risk. Collision with and electrocution on energy infrastructure, human disturbance, habitat degradation, and deterioration in food availability are further important threats to vultures.

Vulture Conservation

A study was done in 2018 to find out which areas were in critical need of vulture conservation. The prioritizing analysis indicated the highest priority areas for vulture conservation across the world were concentrated in southern and eastern Africa; southern Europe; the Arabian Peninsula; and the Indian subcontinent. About 95% of the top-ranked 30% priority areas for vulture conservation in the region fell within Africa (51.6%) and Asia (43.5%), and within these Southern Africa, East Africa, and South Asia each supported over 20% of the top 30% ranked areas for vulture conservation.

Although some of these actions, such as rapid response interventions on poisoning events and additional feeding stations, may reduce adverse impacts from threats such as poisoning, these are short-term solutions only. Essentially, actions of wide temporal and spatial scope and impact are needed. Among these, design and strong enforcement of targeted legislation would help restrict the distribution and use of drugs and poisons that threaten vultures. Similarly, severe regulations to ensure proper environmental impact assessments and planning would help reduce risks from wind energy and other infrastructure development in areas important for vulture conservation.

White backed vultures photographed in Kruger National Park.

It will be important to identify the relevant local stakeholders, such as communities, nongovernmental organizations, government institutions, private, and state-owned companies, and discuss the threats with a participatory, community-engaged approach. We found a positive relationship between national governance and the share of vulture priority areas. This indicates that vulture priority areas are more concentrated in countries with good governance than ones with bad. In many of these areas, vulture populations have declined prominently over the past decades, leading to a loss of their waste removal and potential disease regulating services.

Although there has been recent progress to bring vulture conservation to the top of the international conservation science and policy agenda, there is now an urgent need to mobilize funds and implement action. Saving vultures is not only a matter of conservation ethics and principle but also about saving a unique functional guild that provides key ecosystem services. No other functional guild is dominated by a group of so few and yet so endangered species. A consortium of NGO and government partners have supported the conservation of Cambodian vultures since 2004.

The situation in Africa entails that a number of environmental and cultural issues are addressed. These were outlined in a resolution to African governments by the participants of the 2012 Pan-Africa Vulture Summit, where the following specific recommendations were made.

(1) Effectively regulate the import, manufacture, sale, and use of poisons, including agricultural chemicals and pharmaceutical products known to be lethal to vultures.

(2) Legislate and enforce stringent measures to prosecute and impose harsh penalties on perpetrators of poisoning and those illegally trading in vultures and/or their body parts.

(3) Ensure appropriate levels of protection and management for vultures and their breeding sites.

Waiting patiently for the next meal.

(4) Ensure that all new energy infrastructure is vulture friendly and that existing unsafe infrastructure is modified accordingly.

(5) Support research, capacity building, and outreach programs for the conservation and survival of healthy vulture populations.

Due to the increase in poisoning vultures deliberately or unintentionally, a lodge in Zimbabwe has begun feeding the vultures the previous night’s leftover meat. The tourists love it and it has become very popular. Not only are the vultures getting a safe meal not laced with poison but while they are feasting the tourists are spoken to about how important these birds are to the ecosystem and what role they play.

Vultures bodies are adapted to eating carrion.

Take Home Message

In order to save vultures we need to change our mind set about them. We need to stop seeing them as a nuisance, but rather birds that are incredibly adapted to eating decayed meat and reducing spread of diseases. They are literally the dustbin men of the natural world and if they go extinct, problems will arise such as feral dogs carrying rabies, burning of carcasses will only add to the crisis of climate change, not to mention diseases spreading like wildfire.

Education and awareness needs to be brought to rural areas to aid conservation efforts. For the man on the street, give donations to reputable conservation organisations such as Birdlife and the Endangered Wildlife trust. Next time you come into contact with a vulture whether it be in a nature reserve, rehabilitation centre or wildlife sanctuary rather than just dismissing it and moving on quickly to find the more exciting animals, take some time and appreciate the important work these incredible birds do in the environment. 

For more info on other animal species declining check out this link


Krüger, A.S.C., Simmons, R.E., Amar, A., Kr, S.C. Anthropogenic activities influence the abandonment of Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) territories in southern Africa Anthropogenic activities influence the abandonment of Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) territories in southern Africa. Bio One Complete, 117(1): 94–107.

Loveridge, R., Ryan, G.E., Sum, P., Grey-read, O., Mahood, S.P., Mould, A., Harrison, S., Crouthers, R., Ko, S.O.K., Clements, T.O.M., Eames, J.C. & Pruvot, M. 2018. Poisoning causing the decline in South-East Asia’s largest vulture population. Bird Conservation International. 29 (1): 41-54.

Naidoo, V., Wolter, K. & Botha, C.J. 2017. Lead ingestion as a potential contributing factor to the decline in vulture populations in southern Africa. Environmental Research, 152: 150–156.

Ogada, D., Shaw, P., Beyers, R.L., Buij, R., Murn, C., Thiollay, J.M., Beale, C.M., Holdo, R.M., Pomeroy, D., Baker, N., Kruger, S.C., Botha, A., Virani, M.Z., Monadjem, A. & Sinclair, A.R.E. 2016. Another Continental Vulture Crisis : Africa’s Vultures Collapsing toward Extinction. Conservation Letters, 9: 89–97.

Salewski, V. 2017. Comoé National Park – a refuge for critically endangered vulture species in West Africa. Vulture News, 72, 25.

Santangeli, A., Girardello, M., Buechley, E., Botha, A., Minin, E. Di & Moilanen, A. 2019. Priority areas for conservation of Old World vultures. Conservation Biology, (0): 1–10.

Thorley, J.B., Clutton-brock, T. 2017. Kalahari vulture declines, through the eyes of meerkats Kalahari vulture declines, through the eyes of meerkats. Ostrich, 88:2, 177-181.

Photo Credits

Terres de I’Ebre

Birdlife Portal Natal

Telegraph India

Comments are closed.