Written by Bee-Elle
Flat-footed and massive-winged, vultures soar majestically on thermals – some gliding more than 160 kilometres a day – keeping the savannah’s fine balance in check.
Botfly larvae, rotting skin, anthrax and rabies, they’ll clean it all up. Tough and not afraid to fight, they’ll swoop, pounce and caw at anyone getting in their way, including their much larger contemporaries, the hyena and jackal. Anyone, except humans it would seem, who are ironically the very reason they are on the verge of extinction.
In the 1990s, vultures were virtually wiped out from India after mass poisoning by Dicloflenac, an anti-inflammatory painkiller that was widely used to treat cattle. The results were catastrophic. Without the vultures to clean up carcasses, stray dogs took up the role instead. As a result, dog and rat populations surged and went out of control, dog bites shot up, rabies proliferated and widespread deaths ensued, leading to more than 47,000 human deaths which cost India US$34 billion in health care.
Consequently, vulture numbers of three key species in South Asia plummeted by more than 96% in less than 10 years. The balance, environmentally and economically, was thrown into shambles.
In Africa, these keystone species are undergoing an alarming decline and a similar crisis could hit. After a key assessment in 2014, the conservation statuses of the hooded, white-backed, white-headed and Ruppell’s vulture, were swiftly upgraded to critically endangered. The Cape and lappet-faced vulture, the latter of which is the largest vulture on the continent, were also upgraded from vulnerable to endangered.
The reasons for their deaths are varied, yet all are caused by both unintentional and intentional human action. One-third of vultures killed in Africa are for traditional medicine: their body parts are used to create various ‘cures’ and are heavily used in superstitious practices and witchcraft. The giddy heights at which they fly also means they collide with wind turbines and power lines, resulting in instant death by impact or electrocution.
The most significant cause of death of vultures in Africa, however, is by poison. Pastoralists will leave poisoned carcasses out in an attempt to kill predators including lion, jackals and hyena that could potentially prey on their livestock. Either the vulture eats the poisoned carcass directly, or a creature who has died from ingesting the laced bait. Additionally, poachers of elephant tusks and ivory horn poison the vultures in an attempt to mask their tracks, which would otherwise be revealed by flying vultures circling overhead.
The poison used is Furadan, a cheap agricultural pesticide that is readily available across the continent. It can kill even the largest of predators or an entire colony of vultures. Sadly, many pastoralists continue to illegally misuse this poison in a desperate attempt to protect their livestock, the blood of their livelihood. The poison remains in the environment for a long time. If it doesn’t instantly kill wildlife, the run-off from the soil contaminates dams, rivers and drinking water, potentially killing large swaths of these creatures of the wild.
About eight years ago, the manufacturer, FMC, is said to have withdrawn the poison from shelves after the poisoning cases were revealed. Today, deaths by poisoning continue, so Furadan, or a close substitute, continues to linger in the market while it sends the vultures as a whole into an alarming and critical decline. Conservationists have been calling for a complete ban of the pesticide.
This is no doubt an urgent conservation priority, but it needs to be highlighted as an economic development priority for it to gain more attention. If effective management plans to protect the vultures of Africa are not made soon, the prognosis is poor: within the next 50-100 years, the vultures of Africa will be gone.
If that happens, and if the case in India is anything to go by, there is no doubt that anarchy will ensue: ecosystems will be ridden with disease and thrown into an unsustainable imbalance, thousands of creatures will be killed in its wake, and humans will suffer on a continent-wide scale.
Vultures are not often in the limelight, but they must be, now more than ever, in order to ensure that they don’t vanish – for the world will struggle to function without them.