Mass vulture poisoning in West Africa

Old World vultures have suffered catastrophic declines in the last forty years. The Indian subcontinent’s vultures were once super-abundant. Rivers of them would pour out of nighttime roosts heading into the countryside looking for dead or dying animals. The Oriental White-backed Vulture (Gyps bengalensis), for example, was so abundant that it was considered one of the most common large birds of prey in the world. Once numbering several million individuals, it’s now listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered (ie facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild) after an almost incomprehensible 99.9% decline.

Of the species of Asian vulture, four are now Critically Endangered. The cause was the uptake by vets of the anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac in the 1980s. Vultures feeding on cattle treated with Diclofenac suffered rapid kidney failure and death. Populations of the Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus) and the Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) fell 97.4%.and – after intensive conservation efforts – are only now showing signs of recovery.

Four of Africa’s eleven species of vulture are also Critically Endangered. Vulture decline in Africa is not attributable to Diclofenac though. The situation across the continent is less clear-cut, with peripheral factors including habitat loss, ingestion of lead ammunition, collisions with power lines, and accidental drownings in farm water reservoirs. But the drop appears to have three main causes: the indiscriminate (and accidental) poisoning of vultures to protect livestock; the deliberate poisoning of vultures by poachers (in one such incident in Botswana 530 vultures were killed when poachers laced elephant carcasses with poison to prevent circling vultures alerting rangers), and the rising use of vulture body parts in traditional medicine.

The latter appears to be behind a major poisoning event in Guinea-Bissau earlier this year involving Critically Endangered Hooded Vultures (Necrosyrtes monachus). The deaths appeared at first to be a poison-bait incident (rural farmers will use poisons like Carbofuran to kill predators and feral dogs, and vultures are killed as they fly in attracted by the corpses), but investigations show that there were multiple poisoning events and that there was probably a belief-based use motivation: at least 200 of the vultures were beheaded, suggesting the body parts were harvested for ‘medicinal’ or ritual purposes, despite – as is so often the case with ‘medicine-based’ animal exploitation – any evidence that they provide any medical benefits.

The deaths were concentrated in the eastern part of the country (one of the poorest in the world), and information now emerging indicates that dead vultures had also been reported on at least 5 other occasions since Sept 2019. It’s now thought that as many as a staggering 2,000 Hooded Vultures have died in Guinea-Bissau since 2019. This represents a loss of around 5% of the estimated national population of Hooded Vultures (put at around 43000 in 2018 surveys – a figure which itself represents around 22% of the entire global population).

A recent newsletter from SAVE (the global vulture specialist group) states that further evidence is emerging of a high demand for vulture body parts from neighbouring countries (and potentially other countries further afield) which is driving cross-border trade.

“Vulture body parts, along with other animal products, are well known to be illegally traded internationally for belief-based use, particularly in West Africa”, says Rebecca Garbett, BirdLife’s Vulture Conservation Manager. “Information coming from field teams in Guinea-Bissau suggests the vultures being killed in this incident may be illegally traded widely throughout the region for belief-based use, although this is illegal and drives declines internationally.”

Losses on this scale are a huge setback for conservation efforts across Africa of course, and severely threatens the persistence of regional populations of the species.

“The mass poisoning of vultures in Guinea-Bissau is sad and unfortunate. While there are concerted efforts to save these Critically Endangered birds, tragedies such as this undermine conservation efforts”, says Geoffroy Citegetse, a Conservation Project Manager based at BirdLife’s West Africa office. “In spite of this, we are working together to understand the cause of the deaths and raise awareness about the plight of vultures in Guinea Bissau.”

Recent political instability in Guinea Bissau and the COVID-19 pandemic have made tackling this crisis particularly challenging. However, as outlined by Stephen Khan in The Conversation this week, “There are a few steps that can be taken: raise awareness, involve the community and deal with the method of poisoning”. He goes on to say that in “Nigeria, BirdLife is working with its national partner, the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, to address the same threat: belief-based use and illegal trade of vultures. They work with traditional healers’ associations, hunters and traders of wildlife products to advocate for the use of plant-based alternatives to vultures. They also support law enforcement agencies in dealing with illegal trade. This has proven to be a very successful approach. Getting buy-in from key people involved in the sourcing, sales and use of vultures and wildlife products in general is essential for making a meaningful and sustainable impact.”.

In the meantime a petition has been started which is linked to below. It asks the global community “to join us in our fight to save Africa’s vultures by helping us galvanize action and raise the profile of these highly endangered birds”.