Vultures and folklore
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.