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

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
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.