After the catastrophic declines seen in Asia's vultures, are their kin faring any better? In an article published yesterday, the Guardian reports on the status of vultures in Africa. Today's blog is by RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist, Steffen Oppel, reporting further on the reasons for vulture declines.

Since 2010, our project to save Egyptian Vultures on the Balkans has equipped 61 individual vultures with tracking devices, and in December 2019 we were still tracking 24 live birds. Over the past 6 months, we lost 20% of these birds. Their deaths were largely caused by general and ubiquitous threats along the flyway.

The Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) occurs throughout southern Europe, south Africa to southern Asia (c) Carlos Delgado (Wikimedia Commons)

The main threats to vultures along the Eastern Mediterranean flyway are poisoning, electrocution, and direct persecution, and within just a few months we witnessed individually marked birds from our project succumb to all these threats across different countries.

Inadvertent poisoning kills many vultures

In December 2019, a bird that had been liberated from a private zoo in Jordan in 2019, was found poisoned in Ethiopia. The cause was typical for this threat: rural livestock herders had lost goats to hyena predation, and in the quest to avoid the loss of more goats, they added a lethal pesticide to the goat carcass to kill the offending hyena. Vultures – uniquely skilled to find dead bodies as their main food source – also consume the poisoned carcass and inadvertently suffer a gruesome death. A second bird was lost under similar circumstances in Ethiopia in March 2020, but the cause could not be investigated due to travel restrictions.

Egyptian Vulture poisoned in Ethiopia in December 2019 when a pesticide was added to a goat carcass to kill hyenas.

Another pathway to poisoning are public health initiatives to control feral dogs or locust swarms with pesticides. In April 2020, a bird we tagged in Ethiopia dropped dead in its breeding grounds in Saudi Arabia. Although travel restrictions again prevented a detailed examination of the cause of death, it coincided with the widespread aerial application of pesticides to control enormous locust swarms that were migrating from East Africa to the Arabian peninsula.

Poorly designed infrastructure causes electrocution

An equally widespread and unintentional threat is electric infrastructure – power lines that transport electricity across the landscape can pose a major risk to vultures and other large birds. Poorly designed poles that allow birds to simultaneously touch two conducting wires or a conducting part of the pole that supports the wires lead to instant death from electrocution, and this threat is particularly widespread in Ethiopia, Turkey, and some other countries along the flyway.

Electrocution killed Polya, one of our young birds in May 2020, just before she could return to her native breeding grounds for the first time. The bird was born in Bulgaria in 2017, and had migrated through 12 countries, spent a winter in Sudan, a summer in Syria, and another winter in Saudi-Arabia – but then died near the end of its first homebound migration at a poorly designed electric transformer in Turkey. This fate is likely shared by hundreds of birds every year, which are silently killed in similar fashion at billions of similarly poorly designed infrastructure along the flyway.