Vultures Next On The Endangered Bushmeat Menu

White-backed vulture. EcoPrint/Shutterstock.

They might not be the supermodels of the savannah, but vultures still boast a proud place in clearing up dead remains in many ecosystems. Unfortunately, it seems that even their diet of decaying flesh hasn't deterred humans from putting vultures on the menu. Bushmeat traders in Africa have been selling vulture carcasses as a delicacy for years, but with bitter consequences for the vulture population. And perhaps unsavory results for mankind too.

A team of researchers has been monitoring the number of vulture carcasses sold at bushmeat markets. They visited 67 markets in 12 different countries, checking out hundreds of bushmeat stalls to gather data. Of the 2,646 carcasses they examined, 27% of them were vulture species categorized as either near threatened, vulnerable, or endangered. You can read these results in Oryx.

What is also worrying is that the population of seven key vulture species has fallen by 80% in the last 30 years. These startling results come from the first Africa-wide study of vulture community collapse presented in Conservation Letters. Six species of vulture now qualify as critically endangered. 

Cape vulture, currently with vulnerable status. Jan-Nor Photography/Shutterstock.

Curiously, scavenging species of raptor were more commonly found on the market than non-scavengers. This alludes to the methods used to catch them: poisoned bait. In fact, the main threat for vultures is poisoning, which made up 61% of deaths, followed by trade in traditional medicine at 29%. While vultures are renowned for being able to digest the nastiest of substances – including rabies and anthrax – there are still poisons that aren't so friendly to the hardy vulture stomach.

Sometimes vultures find themselves the unlucky victims of eating a poisoned carcass that were supposed to kill troublesome carnivores such as jackals and hyenas. However, vultures are also sometimes the intended target. Poachers find them bothersome since they circle around an illegal kill and attract the attention of rangers. To avoid detection from vulture-beacons, poachers kill them off with poisoned carcasses.

There is also a large market for vulture parts in traditional medicine. The vulture diet of carrion (decaying meat) has surprising benefits for humans. Vultures are essential in stripping skeletons and supressing the transmission of disease. If vultures weren't around, then their grisly role would be taken over by ground-based scavengers, such as dogs, who could then transmit diseases to humans.

This sensationalist-sounding link isn't just true, it has happened before. In 2007, India noticed a rapid decline in their vulture population after eating cows that had been treated with a drug called diclofenac. With no vultures, cow carcasses lay by the road, rotting and stinking. The feral dog population took up the responsibility of picking the carcasses clean. The dog population boomed, and so did the number of humans with dog bites infected with rabies. Thousands of people tragically died of rabies, unprotected now that the vultures weren't ingesting the diseased meat.

Ogada and colleagues call for urgent action by governments to tackle this baiting. They recommend restricting the sale of pesticides and poisons and eliminating the illegal trade of vulture parts as either food or medicine. The threat to vultures might not be sudden or extreme, but African countries need to take action now to protect this valuable bird.

Image in text: Handsome portrait of lappet-faced vulture, classed as vulnerable. Yair Leibovich/Shutterstock.

[H/T: New Scientist]

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