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Ornithologists converge in Mara to discuss the Vulture decline

Date Published: 17 Apr, 2012
Ornithologists converge in Mara to discuss the Vulture decline

Darcy Ogada, Assistant Director of Africa Programs makes a presentation at the Pan African Vulture Summit 2012 held at the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Over 500 birds of the vulture species have been killed through poisoning in the last 10 years in Kenya alone. This numbers are still on the increase as has been identified by the Pan African Ornithologists and conservationists from across Africa. To discuss efforts of saving the most threatened functional group of birds, the Pan-African Vulture Summit is ongoing at the Ilkeliani Lodge in the Maasai Mara to discuss the declining vulture populations in Africa.  The 5 day Vulture Summit that started on April 16, 2012 was graced by IUCN Regional Director Ali Kaka KWS Senior Scientist Dr. Charles Musyoki and the Maasai Mara National Reserve Chief Park Warden, Michael Koikai.

According to KWS, vulture numbers in the Maasai Mara National Reserve have declined by an average of 62% since the 1970s and from 2001 to 2003 there was a 70% decline in vultures in Laikipia District. In addition, the annual mortality from poisoning has recently been as high as 25% around the Maasai Mara National Reserve.   KWS anticipates that after developing the Pan African vulture conservation strategy it will reach the local communities to enable them understand their role in conserving vultures as they have a direct impact on them.  Nearly two thirds of vulture species worldwide are threatened with extinction.  The most rapid declines have occurred in the vulture-rich regions of Asia and Africa.  Vultures are particularly vulnerable to high mortality because they have some of the lowest reproductive rates among birds. Ali Kaka, the IUCN Regional Director, mentioned that social and political elements should be identified in conserving vultures and the need to interest communities to the threat of avian scavengers. A decade ago none of Kenya’s eight vulture species was on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  At present, 6 of 8 species are on the Red List and populations continue to decline at an alarming rate.

Vultures are nature’s most successful scavengers and they provide an array of ecological, economic, and cultural services. They are highly specialized in rapidly consuming carcasses, and their scavenging contributes towards nutrient cycling and limiting the spread of diseases.  Research has indicated that though a number of threats are contributing to vulture population declines in Kenya, the most significant threat is from poisoning. In the past decade, hundreds of vultures have been killed after consuming poisoned baits that were meant to kill lions and hyenas which had attacked livestock.  Vultures are also intentionally poisoned by poachers because the aerial presence of circling vultures alerts wildlife authorities of the location of their illegal activities. Other threats to Kenya’s vultures include habitat destruction, food shortage, and the proliferation of power lines and wind farms that have been shown to have adverse effects on vultures, more so than any other group of birds. 

A recent Kenyan study has shown that vulture population declines may result in increased rates of disease transmission among mammalian carnivores.  In India there has been an increase in disease transmission among dogs and rats as a result of catastrophic vulture population declines on the subcontinent.  Estimates in human health costs as a result of the loss of vultures and subsequent increases in dogs and rabies are about $1.5 billion annually in India.  The Asian Vulture Crisis has shown that governments in that region played a crucial role in halting the declines, protecting and bolstering remaining populations. In fact, common themes among successful vulture conservation programmes worldwide are a large investment, at both national and international levels, of financial resources and highly skilled personnel, as well as political will and community support.

In Africa the biggest hindrance to vulture conservation is the lack of political will.  The majority of African governments have provided little if any support to vulture conservation or attempted to resolve known vulture threats.  Obviously this situation must change and regional approaches to vulture conservation are needed given the vast land areas that vultures use during their lifespan. 

The aim of the summit clearly symbolizes new strategies demonstrated by the convergence of experts in ornithology thus creating synergies in an international perspective. This way it expedites the urgency of protecting Africa’s threatened vultures, but there remain enormous challenges facing the conservation of these large and highly mobile birds throughout Africa.

The main reason as to why Kenya and in particular the Maasai Mara National Reserve was chosen to host this important vulture meeting is that the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem is the most important area for vulture conservation in East Africa and possibly for the entire continent.  Outcomes of the strategy implementation would include a strong functional network of researchers and conservationists working in partnership for the benefit of vulture populations in Africa as well as improved working relationships between project partners for the benefit of vulture conservation. In addition improved, standardised and better coordinated monitoring of African vulture populations resulting in more reliable data and building capacity, facilitating transfer of skills and creating opportunities for African fieldworkers focused on the conservation of vultures.

With leadership from IUCN, The Vulture Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission, working with the Birds of Prey Programme of the Endangered Wildlife Trust and The Peregrine Fund and their partners in the African Raptor Network, it aims to assess the population status of all African vulture species and identify and initiate the implementation of appropriate conservation interventions and actions in an attempt to effectively address the key threats to these birds from a continental perspective. Hence the need for the summit to discuss fundamentals of the strategy by working conclusively with Government authorities like KWS, National Museums of Kenya and the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Funding for this initiative has been provided by the United States Fisheries and Wildlife Service and the Wildlife without Borders Program.

For more information contact
Dr. Erastus Kanga KWS,

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