Vul­tures and folk­lore

Geographical - - DOSSIER -

Vul­tures are an in­te­gral part of the global food chain, scav­eng­ing the bod­ies of dead an­i­mals, re­mov­ing germs and re­plac­ing them with nu­tri­ents, yet they are both much ma­ligned and de­clin­ing. The main driver of the de­cline of Asian vul­tures was iden­ti­fied more than 20 years ago, when post-mortem tests re­vealed high lev­els of di­clofenac, an anti-in­flam­ma­tory drug given to cat­tle. When the drug is metabolise­d, it be­comes deadly to car­rion feed­ers such as vul­tures. The RSPB’s Harper stresses the im­por­tance of un­der­stand­ing the causes of de­cline. ‘The de­cline of Asian vul­tures has been shock­ing,’ he says, ‘but we needed the sci­ence in or­der to un­der­stand what was driv­ing it. If we had as­sumed it was a land­scape prob­lem, rather than a vet­eri­nary one, we would have missed the is­sue.’

Africa’s eight vul­ture species, mean­while, have de­clined by a col­lec­tive 62 per cent dur­ing the past 30 years. Many are dy­ing af­ter eat­ing car­casses laced with pes­ti­cides placed by farm­ers hop­ing to kill lions and other preda­tors, with the prob­lem par­tic­u­larly acute in Botswana, Kenya and Zim­babwe. An­other threat is that of lo­cal be­lief sys­tems. In Nige­ria, the birds’ tremen­dous eye­sight has been their undoing: birds’ brains are ground to snuff by witch doc­tors who be­lieve that con­sump­tion of vul­ture body parts can en­able hu­mans to see into the fu­ture. BirdLife Africa is work­ing to raise aware­ness and ad­vo­cacy against be­lief-based use of vul­tures in Nige­ria and has helped to es­tab­lish vul­ture-safe zones that cover 250,000 hectares in Zam­bia.

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