Poorly designed infrastructure development causes mortality of globally threatened birds along their migratory flyways – potentially causing population declines on breeding grounds in Europe and Asia. Steffen Oppel, Senior Conservation Scientist, explains.

‘Sustainable development’ is a laudable goal of the United Nations to improve livelihoods, but all too often the associated development projects are not actually environmentally sustainable. Many countries in Africa and the Middle East aim to improve livelihoods of people living in rural areas by providing electricity – a convenience that many people take for granted. The powerlines that connect the households of millions of people to a centralised electricity grid are, however, often poorly designed, such that they cause inadvertent death to large birds.

A typical new low-voltage power distribution line connecting rural communities in eastern Ethiopia. The metal cross-bar, and the propped-up insulators that support the live wire above the crossbar are typical features that make this powerline extremely dangerous for large birds © Steffen Oppel

Most birds can safely sit on a powerline without being harmed. However, if a power pole is poorly designed, large birds that land on such a pole come into contact with both the grounded support structure and the live wire – which leads to instant death of the bird by electrocution, as well as potential electricity outages. The electricity outages are a constant nuisance for local communities, and incur maintenance costs for electricity providers. Many designs exist to build powerlines that are perfectly safe for birds of all sizes to roost on, but unfortunately these designs are often not used.

An Endangered Egyptian Vulture perching on a dangerous power pole (left © Andras Kovacs), and an electrocution victim being recorded by a team member (right © Steffen Oppel). Birds that perch on the metal crossbar and touch either of the live wires with their wings during landing or take-off are instantly electrocuted, making this pole design extremely dangerous.

Large eagles and vultures soar over even the most remote places of Africa and southern Asia, and they provide a vital service in that they remove rotting carcasses from the landscape. Whether dead cattle, elephants or antelopes – vultures ensure that these carcasses are cleaned up free of charge. The catastrophic decline of vultures in India led to an overabundance of feral dogs and increased rabies infections in people. Unfortunately, infrastructure developments in Africa and the Middle East are contributing to the loss of vultures from the landscape.

Remains of an Endangered Steppe Eagle under a dangerous power pole near the biggest congregation site for this species in central Saudi Arabia © Stoyan Nikolov

Two new papers

Two new studies in the journal Bird Conservation International highlight the threats posed by electricity infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. These two case studies found that infrastructure was poorly designed and killed globally threatened birds of prey.

Large congregations of Steppe Eagles wintering in the desert of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian Vultures wintering in Ethiopia are being electrocuted by dangerous power poles. Conservation efforts to protect these birds in Europe or in western and central Asia are therefore undermined by poorly designed infrastructure along the bird’s migratory flyways.

A new powerline with poorly designed poles posing a high electrocution risk was under construction in 2019 near the Metahara abattoir (left) – a place that attracts large numbers of vultures because livestock carcasses are discarded behind the abattoir. An existing line at the same abattoir is already used by Hooded, Rüppell’s, White-backed and Egyptian Vultures (right) and kills dozens of vultures every year © Steffen Oppel

In Ethiopia, the study found an even more cryptic side effect of sustainable development: the introduction of a non-native plant to stabilise the soil and prevent the expansion of the desert has led to many problems for livestock herders in eastern Ethiopia. Because they can no longer effectively protect their goats in dense stands of the now-invasive plant, they resort to poison to kill natural predators hiding in the thickets. Vultures find the poisoned carcasses very quickly and get inadvertently poisoned as a consequence.

Rubbish dump in Ethiopia, where a dead donkey is eaten by feral dogs and Hooded Vultures. The control of feral dogs or other potential livestock predators with poison kills many vultures in Ethiopia © Steffen Oppel

Protected areas for vultures

The widespread threats in Ethiopia are particularly disconcerting, because the country is a global hotspot for vulture conservation. Seven species of vulture regularly occur in Ethiopia, and the country hosts some of the largest congregations of wintering Egyptian Vultures.

Another new study published in Bird Conservation International shows that existing protected areas are insufficient to conserve these vulture populations, because only about one fifth of vulture priority areas fall within protected areas. In addition, because vultures travel large distances in search of food, most individual vultures spend the majority of their time outside of protected areas, even if they regularly roost, breed or forage inside a protected area.

Thus, it is essential that lethal threats to vultures are removed from the entire landscape so that vultures have a chance to survive outside of protected areas.

Better solutions

Solutions to the factors causing mortality readily exist. Better designed powerlines would immediately eliminate the electrocution risk to large birds, and would also decrease the ongoing maintenance costs for bird-induced power disruptions. While such improved designs should be used in all new infrastructure developments, the currently existing infrastructure can be refurbished to reduce the already existing threats.

Funders and governments who aim to improve livelihoods of rural people should consider the critical services that many large birds provide – and invest in infrastructure that does not undermine the goal of providing healthy livelihoods to people.

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