Saving misunderstood scavengers
Milliam Murigi @millymur1
Vultures tend to be misunderstood creatures. They are often considered lowly or foul creatures mostly because of their eating habits.
As scavengers, they feed almost exclusively on carrion (dead animals).
Consequently, they are often associated with death and are thought of as grim and foreboding.
What many people don’t know is that vultures play a critical role in the ecosystem.
Paul Gacheru, Species and Sites Manager, Nature Kenya, East Africa Natural History Society (EANHS), says these scavengers do the dirty work of cleaning up after death to keep ecosystems healthy and prevent disease spread.
“If we do not have vultures today, we predict an increase in diseases. For example, in the Masai Mara National Reserve, during the wildebeest migration, thousands die as they cross the Mara River.
If not cleaned up, communities downstream would have contaminated water. This would lead to an outbreak of waterborne diseases,” he says.
By cleaning up, vultures halt spread of diseases because their stomach acids neutralise pathogens that can affect other animals and human beings.
“Vultures have a very acidic gut system that helps them to neutralise disease-causing pathogens.
They also limit contact time for other animals, which can catalyse disease transmission.
Vultures clean up a carcass in two hours, but without them, the same carcass will remain uncleaned for days,” he adds.
However, despite their importance to the environment, the vulture population has been on the decline in the past three decades. Kenya has lost over 90 per cent of some vulture species.
Four of the eight vulture species in the country, namely White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus), Rüppell’s Vulture (Gyps rueppelli), White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis), and Hooded Vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus) are listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
The key challenges are due to wildlife poisoning, habitat destruction, and electricity infrastructural development.
Poaching is a key threat, especially in South Africa where wildlife poachers poison their kills targeting vultures, which guide authorities to where animals have died and enable them catch poachers.
Consequently, vultures die without taking flight after feeding on poisoned carcasses.
Cultural purposes such as witchcraft common in Southern Africa and West Africa also threat populations of these vital birds.
“Poisoning both intentionally and unintentionally is the major threat accounting for 61 per cent of vulture mortality.
Energy infrastructure is the next biggest threat, accounting for nine per cent of recorded mortality on the continent.
Other factors driving vulture population declines include habitat degradation and decline in food availability,” statistics from Birdlife International reveals.
Although vulture colonies in Kenya have been monitored for a long time at Hell’s Gate National Park, there are no exact numbers of available individuals because of their large-ranging area, which makes it difficult to determine national numbers.
To ensure the remaining four species don’t become critically endangered, key strides have been taken to conserve vultures, including developing a policy that criminalises wildlife poisoning, training communities and authorities to rapidly respond to poisoning incidents, identifying and designating key biodiversity areas for vultures, and working with government to place energy infrastructure in areas that minimise bird collision.
Nature Kenya has also taken significant strides in awareness creation on vulture conservation.
They are working with Narok and Kajiado counties which have been identified as hotspots for wildlife poisoning and have a network of 65 volunteers who work with local communities to mitigate it.
They also support local communities to enhance livestock protection through the construction of predator-proof bomas.
“There are areas where vultures are a tourist attraction. This provides a livelihood for communities that engage in this business.
If not safeguarded, people specialised in birding tourism will lose a heritage and a source of revenue,” he adds.
Though the government has promised to set aside sufficient resources to promote conservation of vultures, Gacheru says there is a need for strict regulations controlling use of readily available pesticides/agrochemicals, which are used to poison ‘problematic’ wildlife and consequently end up killing vultures.
“Where communities want to conserve wildlife, this should be encouraged, including practising compatible practices that promote wildlife conservation.
As long as the communities can derive benefits from their land, there will be a positive impact that will support the recovery of wildlife populations,” he says.
Why is it taking other countries so long to conserve vultures than expected? He says vulture reproduction is notoriously slow and if the parents are killed in between laying of eggs to birds leaving the nest, which takes at least a year, there is a loss in population recovery.