Changing Planet

Africa’s Vultures Are Collapsing to Extinction

Among members of the public, I describe myself as a conservationist, or more typically my response is, “I study birds.”

Among my conservation colleagues, I have to go a step further—”I study vultures”—to which the near-unanimous reply is “I just don’t see vultures anymore.” Sigh …

Lappet-faced, white-backed, and Cape vultures squabble over a carcass at Sable Dam, Kruger National Park, South Africa. Our study suggests that these three species are declining at a rate of 80–92 percent over three generations (about 45–55 years). (Photo by Andre Botha)

Sadly, that statement reflects the reality on the ground these days across Africa. In particular, the past five years have been brutal for what are arguably nature’s most important scavengers.

Poisoning, poisoning, and more poisoning. Whether you’re a fan of vultures’ unique lifestyle or not, you can’t begrudge an animal a safe meal when that animal does such ubiquitous good for mankind. Yet for a vulture, to eat and be poisoned or not to eat: that is the question.

66 vultures were poisoned in one incident at Derby farm, Limpopo, South Africa on 7 May 2015. Poisoning is the biggest threat to Africa’s vultures (photo Andre Botha).
Sixty-six vultures were poisoned in one incident at Derby farm, Limpopo, South Africa on May 7, 2015. Poisoning is the biggest threat to Africa’s vultures. (Photo by Andre Botha)

Majestic to those who know them, yet unloved by many, vultures bear the brunt of retaliatory poisonings targeting predators that have killed livestock.

The poaching crisis facing elephants has also quietly resulted in the carnage of thousands of vultures. Over the last three years poachers have relentlessly laced elephant carcasses to eliminate vultures and prevent their overhead circling from giving away the scene of the crime.

Then there is the unsustainable harvesting of vultures for traditional medicine. How “traditional” (or medicinal?) is your vulture-based medicine when 40 percent of parts on sale come from birds that have been killed by pesticides?

That Africa’s vultures are in crisis is no longer in doubt. Our most recent study confirms that eight species of African vulture have declined an average of 62 percent over the past three decades. Given annual decline rates, they are projected to decline from 70-97 percent over three generations, or approximately 50 years. Without conservation intervention, extinction is certain. And because vultures don’t breed like rabbits, their declines will be felt for many decades to come.

Rüppell's Vulture descending: studies in West and East Africa  suggest that populations of Rüppell's Vulture are declining at a rate of about 97% over three generations (or 56 years) (photo Ralph Buij).
Rüppell’s vulture descending: studies in West and East Africa suggest that populations of Rüppell’s vulture are declining at a rate of about 97 percent over three generations (or 56 years). (Photo by Ralph Buij)

For those of us working to conserve Africa’s vultures, we are a beleaguered bunch. Vultures in the wild desperately need our help to raise awareness about the need for better regulation of pesticides and other poisons, particularly in Africa. This is how you can help us to make an impact:
1) Share this blog post and the full study as widely as possible: “Another continental vulture crisis: Africa’s vultures collapsing toward extinction.”
2) Support our work by donating to The Peregrine Fund’s Africa Program
3) Get in touch if you have any ideas on how to help:

Read All Posts by Darcy Ogada

Darcy has worked for The Peregrine Fund’s Africa Program since 2010 and is based in central Kenya. Most of her current work focuses on the conservation of vultures and owls. She is particularly passionate about ending the scourge of wildlife poisoning and stopping the illegal trafficking of owl eggs for belief-based uses in East Africa. Prior to joining The Peregrine Fund she undertook a post-doctoral fellowship with the Smithsonian Institution based at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya. She has studied Mackinder’s Eagle Owls in central Kenya and conducted other research on birds and rodents. She volunteered for the Peace Corps in Niger in 1995 and got her start studying wildlife as a Bald Eagle Nestwatcher for New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. She came to Kenya in 2000 where she has lived ever since. Before moving to Kenya she was an avid skier and ice hockey player, now she spends her free time swimming, birding, and hiking and exploring Africa’s mountains with her son. She’s actively involved in a host of local conservation issues as a member of Nature Kenya’s Bird Committee and the Kenya Wildlife Service Bird Taskforce.
  • Naomi Radunski

    Disheartening. There seems to be no limit to the damage the human species is willing to inflict. I wish there was something I could DO to help – so many people give money, as much as they can afford, but there is a growing desire amongst regular citizens to take ACTION on behalf of the animals under siege. I wish there were some new ideas around this – I would definitely help.
    Thank you for your dedication.

  • Matt

    There’s always something you can do locally, even for big, multi-national organisations and pressure groups. Spread the word! That helps, enormously.

  • Leigh Lofgren

    What on earth are we doing to this earth? It was once beautiful until man came into the picture to ruin perfection. I agree with Naomi above as something must be done to protect all our wild animals, their lifestyles and habitat. I have been to Africa many times as a photographer and it’s a stunning place and so depressing knowing what is going on and nothing seems to be stopping the poaching, hunting, killing and now this… must end and how awful is man?

  • Leigh Lofgren

    horrendous and it’s only getting worse. Something must be done that works – stop hunting, killing, poaching and attack the people who are behind the scenes. The other major problem is that China is now in Africa in a big way doing the infostructure of this continent and how stupid is that? They are the worst of the worst and I’m all for helping, but we need to get truly serious and stop the rot. I am just sick at the thought of what man is doing and we are killing everything we have. I love Africa, I’m a photographer and it is the most amazing place and love it. It must be saved.

  • Zdena Zelinsky

    I’ve seen documentaries regarding disappearing vultures. The huge ignorance of humans don’t realize what service those birds perform. If the carcasses don’t get eaten by them, they will attract rodents that spread diseases, which will kill humans as well. Human greed will destroy everything that is beautiful.

  • alba

    I think its discusting, some one needs yo educate these tribes, and to make sure to put does poor animals on yhe protected animal list.

  • Paulm

    Good we all watch David what’s his name shows as Africa in 50 /100 years will be but urban cities farm land and mines with a few Islamist wars to continue to stop people traveling to this once great land. From a distance Africa is being destroyed before our eyes. Ho well that’s what the locals seem to want it seems. They don,t care they just want to be like us in the west. Little do they know we are all just slaves to the corporation.

  • Linda F

    Hiring locals as protectors or conservation officers has worked in some areas for the elephants and other species. They know the area, the people. Often they are admired by the locals. Who regret the losses too.

  • Dr Amrut parmar Associate professor Zoology

    There’s always something you can do locally, even for big, multi-national organisations and pressure groups. Spread the word! That helps, enormously and save Vultures.

  • Dr Amrut parmar Associate professor Zoology

    Save Birds any how

  • Stacie linebaugh

    It is time to use drones…24/7
    there are drones with infared for night..
    shoot to kill poachers

  • celestine mugambi

    Thanking you for great work n creating awarenes.looking forward to see a vulture

  • Danielle Tierney Tranter

    I think the only way to try to save crumbling ecosystems is to designate most of the planet as protected wildlands and pay people to be caretakers instead of poachers as well as paying communities to protect land rather than encroach upon it. People need to earn a living and saving the planet is the most necessary job in the world. Business as usual is killing everything.

  • Bill

    Wow. Thanks. I get to refer to lappet-faced vultures many times each week. I’ll include this. Thank you, again.

  • amber

    Human over-population is the BIG problem which very seldom is talked about. Quit breeding.

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