Conservationists warn of declining vulture populations, spelling doom to health

Conservationists have warned that the number of vultures is declining fast.

Declining vulture populations have a bearing on human health because the birds of prey act as nature’s undertaker by clearing infected carcasses that can easily spread anthrax, tuberculosis and brucellosis — an infectious disease that can spread from animals to humans.

It is estimated that the world owes each vulture more than $11,000 (Sh1,100,000) for these “cleaning services.”

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“By halting the spread of diseases, they are worth much more, more to the governments in saved health services costs, not to mention tourism,” states Birdlife International.

Cleaning services

These vital “cleaning services” are now at stake. According to the International Union of Conservation and Nature, the population of four out of seven vulture species in Kenya is rapidly declining as a result of poisoning.

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The white headed vulture, the hooded vulture, white-backed vulture and Rupell’s vulture are on the verge of extinction. The four species have been listed as critically endangered, with experts calling for more awareness and conservation measures to reverse the tide.

Ironically, vultures are paying with their lives for their undertaker roles in the wild, caught in the middle of human-wildlife conflict.

“Poisoning accounts for more than 60 per cent of recorded vulture deaths in Africa. In most cases, this happens when predators kill livestock and herders poison the carcasses to kill the predators, (which are in turn eaten by vultures),” Nature Kenya, BirdLife International and the Peregrine Fund said in a joint statement.

According to Birdlife International, vulture populations in Africa have declined by up to 98 per cent.

Unsung heroes

“These unsung heroes face mass poisonings, catastrophic and unprecedented population declines, and negative perceptions — when in fact they are nature’s sanitary workers, worthy of celebration,” states Birdlife International.

In Kenya, vulture poisoning is rampant in Masai Mara, Laikipia, Tsavo and Kajiado.

“The main species targeted for poisoning are lions, hyenas and leopards, which kill livestock. Vultures are mainly unintended victims of these poisoning cases. We are collaborating with conservation institutions that carry out carnivore conservation in ensuring the survival of vultures and other targeted species,” said Paul Gacheru, the species and site manager with Nature Kenya.

According to Mr Gacheru, one of the eight vulture species in Kenya is presumed to have become extinct as sightings became rare.

“In the Masai Mara, vultures have declined by 50 per cent in the last 30 years and human-wildlife conflict is one of the leading reasons behind the use of poisoned baits. Agro-chemicals are the poison of choice, indiscriminately killing predators and scavengers,” notes Birdlife International.

The agency said between 2012 and 2014, more than 2,000 vultures were killed in nearly a dozen poaching-related incidents in seven African countries.

Other factors leading to the decline of vulture numbers are habitat loss, human disturbance and collisions with wind turbines and electricity power lines.

To mitigate this, conservationists are calling for more public awareness on the need to avoid poisoning predators and the importance of vultures to remove the perception that they are dirty and greedy.

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ConservationistsBirdlife InternationalAfricaMasai MaraVultures