The pandemic of 2020 brought hardship and suffering to many, but for British birdwatchers there were happy moments. Perhaps the most widely shared of these was the spectacle of the majestic young female Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatusthat spent several months here. As well as the sheer joy, her visit stimulated enormous public and media interest, with many wondering how she found herself here (Phipps et al. 2021). While young vultures roam widely, population increases in the Continent, thanks to conservation action, would have made her arrival more likely.
The Bearded Vulture’s recovery in western Europe is one of several remarkable successes in vulture conservation in recent years. The Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus population now exceeds 30,000 pairs in Spain, alongside over 2,500 pairs of Black Vultures Aegypius monachus (SEO/BirdLife 2018). However, the IUCN Red List continues to show (as it did in 2015) that half of the 16 African and Eurasian vulture species are Critically Endangered and three more are Endangered, placing vultures among the most threatened of all bird groups. In this column in August 2016, Ian Newton set out ‘the plight of the world’s vultures’; this contribution provides an update for these ‘Old World’ species.
The first signs of large-scale collapse of vulture populations were seen in south Asia, caused by veterinary use of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) diclofenac. The international coalition Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction (SAVE) works closely with governments to agree and review the priority actions, while advocating for further safety testing of alternative NSAIDs and legislation to back up evidence of toxicity through further bans. This is combined with ‘Vulture Safe Zone’ programmes consisting of awareness-raising about NSAIDs and the bans now in force; provision of food uncontaminated by NSAIDs; and promotion of a vulture-safe alternative NSAID, meloxicam, for veterinary use in livestock (Bowden 2017). These measures are working in Nepal, but urgently need replicating more widely if populations are to be secured across south Asia; recent undercover surveys, notably in India, have demonstrated ongoing illegal use of diclofenac as well as a growing array of other NSAIDs. Meanwhile, the first trial releases of captive-bred Critically Endangered vultures have taken place: 30 in Nepal since 2017 and eight in India in 2020.
The actual and potential impact of veterinary NSAIDs on vultures elsewhere has gained wider attention, although the Governments of Spain and Italy have defended their decision to licence veterinary products containing diclofenac, arguing that with mitigation measures the risk to vultures is negligible; the European Union did not argue with this conclusion. However, even a tiny proportion of contaminated carcases can affect Gyps vulture populations, and population modelling by Green et al. (2016) suggested that veterinary diclofenac was likely to have a significant impact on Griffon Vulture populations, justifying a precautionary ban. More recently, tissue analysis of avian scavengers in Iberia has confirmed many vulture conservationists’ worst fears: the presence of vulture-toxic NSAID residues in avian scavengers as well as in carrion (Herrero-Villar et al. 2020). The dead scavengers included three Griffon Vultures with apparent NSAID poisoning, in this case flunixin rather than diclofenac. Vulture numbers in Spain continue to rise, but experience in Asia shows there is no room for complacency regarding the devastating effects this group of veterinary drugs can have on vultures. Consequently, several organisations, including BirdLife International, continue to call for precautionary bans.
Attention to NSAID risks is now global and not confined to diclofenac. Iran, Cambodia and most recently Oman have now banned veterinary diclofenac. Significantly, the precautionary approach was adopted by country parties to the Convention on Migratory Species in 2020, with a resolution in favour of safety testing, rigorous risk assessment (leading to bans or non-approval where appropriate), and identification and promotion of safe alternative drugs.
The curse of poison baits, often using highly toxic insecticides, continues, placing even Europe’s vultures under pressure. The Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus is still in decline, although several projects are successfully managing wild populations and reintroducing birds from captivity. These efforts now extend to flyway-scale projects for this long-distance migrant into the Sahel, where they are also bolstering efforts to conserve the increasingly beleaguered resident vulture populations.
The most worrying situation, and mismatch between the conservation investment required and what has been secured, is in Africa. The problems remain much as set out by Ian Newton, with poisoning at the forefront; severe population declines are expected even when poisoning incidents are infrequent. Pastoralists may poison carcases to kill carnivores that attack their flocks, and kill vultures incidentally; such unintentional poisoning takes place almost wherever vultures occur, and is the primary threat also to southeast Asia’s last population centred on Cambodia. Another problem on the increase is ‘sentinel poisoning’, whereby elephant-poachers deliberately target vultures, which draw attention to their activities. For example, 537 Critically Endangered vultures died in a single sentinel-poisoning incident in Botswana in 2019. Evidence for lead poisoning of vultures caused by residues from hunting ammunition is also mounting in southern Africa, as in Europe and North America. A ban on the use of lead in ammunition used for hunting is the obvious response; the recent decision of EU Member States to ban the use of lead shot in wetlands shows a welcome shift in opinion on this issue among policy-makers.
Corpses of poisoned vultures are sometimes found with body parts, often heads, missing: a sure sign of commercial trade for ‘belief-based use’ (the term ‘traditional medicine’ is nowadays mostly avoided: there is no evidence for any medicinal value). Such use has long affected vultures, especially but not only in West Africa (Buij et al. 2016). The greater clarity of the scale of the threat to vultures from belief-based use (plate 27) is perhaps the single most worrying recent development in vulture conservation, with catastrophic impacts already being seen and the potential for ever-wider impacts as target species could switch, unless it can be stopped.
Rapid-response measures to poisoning incidents can save vultures, and the first formal protocol has been adopted by the Kenya Wildlife Service: prompt, local intelligence triggers a visit by trained staff of wildlife authorities or conservation agencies, with local community members, to collect forensic samples and rescue and rehabilitate any surviving birds, then decontaminate a site by incinerating any remaining bait and poisoned animals. However, the resource needs to implement and sustain such protocols on a large scale are daunting. Programmes to prevent poisoning of carcases include measures to help herders safeguard their livestock and to assist ‘healers’ in Nigeria to find and promote alternatives to vulture body parts. All these approaches are supplemented with programmes to raise local awareness of the importance of vultures, the dangers in using extremely toxic insecticides as poisons, and the laws concerning both vultures and poisons.
Poaching driven by international, organised crime syndicates needs additional tactics: collaboration with elephant and other conservationists to end wildlife trafficking is essential. Vulture Safe Zones are now being created in several southern African countries, as an adaptation of the south Asian approach, with several major landowners participating: this is a new approach but there seems no reason why certified, science-based, voluntary measures by landowners and land managers to control threats and support vulture populations should not succeed.
The crisis facing the world’s vultures is, above all, about poison, to which these birds’ scavenging habits make them highly susceptible. There are other threats, some perhaps more insidious: habitat degradation, reduction in food supplies, disturbance and loss of nesting and roosting sites all take a toll. Vultures are killed by electrocution on poorly designed pylons and collision with poorly sited wind turbines. However, there are well-known, tested solutions to these problems.
International partners and funders are beginning to support countries in drawing up and implementing action plans to enforce or strengthen existing laws and tackle all of these threats, perhaps prompted and steered by the Multi-species Action Plan to Conserve African-Eurasian Vultures adopted by the Convention on Migratory Species (Botha et al. 2017) and the realisation of the scale of vulture body-part trade despite its illegality under national and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) regulations.
In recent years, nature’s decline has led to familiar species becoming rare, and still-common species may have collapsing populations. Vultures exemplify both trends. However, as the brief examples in this article show, there is not a single threat to vultures that cannot be tackled. To save the world’s vultures, the scale of the effort needed and the time over which it will have to be sustained are daunting, but there would be no excuses should humankind fail.
Thanks to Richard Porter for his invitation to write this piece, and to BirdLife International Partnership colleagues for comments on a draft.
Botha, A. J., et al. 2017. Multi-species Action Plan to Conserve African-Eurasian Vultures. Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Bowden, C. G. R. 2017. The creation of the SAVE consortium – Saving Asia’s Vultures from Extinction: a possible model for Africa? Ostrich 88: 189–193.
Buij, R., et al. 2016. Trade of threatened vultures and other raptors for fetish and bushmeat in West and Central Africa. Oryx50: 606–616.
Green, R. E., Donázar, J. A., Sánchez-Zapata, J. A., & Margalida, A. 2016. Potential threat to Eurasian Griffon Vultures in Spain from veterinary use of the drug diclofenac. J. Appl. Ecol. 53: 993–1003.
Henriques, M., et al. 2020. Deliberate poisoning of Africa’s vultures. Science 370 (6514): 304.
Herrero-Villar, M., et al. 2020. NSAIDs detected in Iberian avian scavengers and carrion after diclofenac registration for veterinary use in Spain. Environ. Pollut. 266 (2): 115157.
Phipps, L., Loercher, F., Ball, D., & Marlé, E. 2021. Genetic analysis reveals the origin of a Bearded Vulture in northern Europe. Brit. Birds 114: 33–37.
SEO/BirdLife. 2018. Monografías de seguimiento de aves. [Bird monitoring monographs.] https://seo.org/monografias-de-aves
Roger Safford is coordinator of BirdLife International’s Preventing Extinctions Programme. He has been watching birds all his life, and for 32 years since graduating has been working for their conservation.