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African vulture crisis

African vulture crisis

The African vulture crisis is the name given to the ongoing population decline in several Old World vulture species across Africa. Steep population declines have been reported from many locations across the continent since the early 2000s. The causes are mainly poisoning from baited animal carcasses, and the illegal trade in vulture body parts for traditional medicine. Available data suggest that the African vulture crisis may be similar in scale to the Indian vulture crisis, but more protracted and less well documented.



Animal carcasses may be poisoned with toxic pesticide. This may be from deliberate targeting of vultures -- for example, poachers of elephants and rhinos will target vultures to eliminate their tell-tale overhead circling that might expose their illegal activities. Carcasses are also poisoned to kill carnivores blamed for predation of livestock, herbivores blamed for crop destruction and to control feral dog numbers.

Vultures are particularly vulnerable to poisoning because of their foraging behaviors and life history traits. They are obligate scavengers that primarily consume animal carcasses and waste products. Most vulture species forage in large groups, so many individual birds may be poisoned by a single carcass. Even if a poisoned carcass does not kill vultures it can have a harmful effect. Sublethal exposure can affect their reproductive success, behavior, physical characteristics, and immune response. Their long life spans and high trophic level also make them vulnerable to bioaccumulation of poisons over time.

Trade in body parts for traditional medicine

Vulture body parts are used in some cultures to treat physical and mental illnesses. The prices of vulture meat and body parts have been rising, possibly due to an increased demand for these products or a reduced supply of vultures. The African Vulture trade for belief uses varies in importance across the continent with different African cultures participating or not depending on the value of body parts and meat to their traditional medicinal practices. The current level of trade is not sustainable and is contributing to the decline of vulture populations.


Vulture collisions with energy infrastructure and electrocution are relatively common, especially in southern and northern Africa. Efforts to meet United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have led to expansion of electrification programs. However, these do not always implement bird-safe designs that would limit the risks of electrocution and collision.

Other causes

Other threats that contribute to the decline in African vulture populations include habitat degradation and fragmentation, disturbance of nest sites, declines in vulture food supply, and bushmeat consumption by humans. Vulture deaths have also been caused by them visiting wells to drink then becoming waterlogged and drowning. In one incident in Morocco, 15 Eurasian griffons drowned in a well.


Regions affected

North Africa

Excluding vagrants, three vulture species still exist in North Africa: the griffon vulture, lammergeier, and Egyptian vulture. Two other species (the cinereous vulture and lappet-faced vulture) have now died out from the region.

The Egyptian vulture is found across North Africa, while the Eurasian griffon is restricted to the Atlas mountains. The lammergeier is eradicated from the region except Morocco, where it is considered critically endangered.

The most affected species is the Eurasian griffon, though it is apparently common in much of Europe and Asia. Many poisonings in the region are attributed to the use of strychnine, which is heavily regulated by the Moroccan government.

West Africa

Seven vulture species live in West African countries: the Egyptian vulture, hooded vulture, lappet-faced vulture, palm-nut vulture, Rüppell's vulture, white-backed vulture and white-headed vulture.

West Africa saw some of the largest decreases in vulture numbers, with up to 61% of vultures inside parks and 70% outside parks disappearing in the 30 years between 1970 and 2000. Some populations have declined by almost 97%. In 2020, around 50 hooded vultures were poisoned in Gambia, and between September 2019 and March 2020, 2000 were killed in Guinea-Bissau for traditional medicine. Conservation programs were initiated in these countries and in Senegal, surveying the vulture populations and raising public awareness.

Southern Africa

Southern Africa has the highest species diversity of vultures in the continent, comprising eight species which are the aforementioned Egyptian vulture, hooded vulture, white-backed vulture, white-headed vulture, Rüppell’s griffon vulture, lappet-faced vulture, palmnut vulture and the endemic Cape Vulture.

Whilst conservation action has been taking place in the region, the sporadic nature of poisonings and their large death count have dealt heavy blows to vultures in the region.

A recent incident in Kruger National Park involved the poisoned carcass of an African buffalo somewhere in mid-August 2022. It was estimated that 104 White-backed vultures were fatally poisoned, while 20 were harmed. A hyena had also succumbed from the poisoning. It was believed that the poisoning was intentional to collect vulture parts. Currently, the number of white-backed vultures sits at about 7,500 individuals, down from a population that numbered tens of thousands.

An environmental catastrophe effectively occurred in the Chobe National Park, Botswana in 2019, involving the carcasses of three poisoned African bush elephants. A total 537 vultures perished, 468 white-backed vultures, 28 hooded vultures, 17 white-headed vultures, 14 lappet-faced vultures, and 10 cape vultures. Furthermore, 2 tawny eagles succumbed to the poison. For such slow-breeding and long-lived birds, this was a very heavy blow to their population and a major setback to any conservation efforts.

Consequences and implications

Vultures play an essential ecological role in Africa. As a primary scavenger they contribute to the destruction of harmful pathogens and removal of decaying corpses form the environment, which may limit water contamination and the spread of disease from animal carcasses. Falls in vulture numbers in India led to increased numbers of feral dogs and increased rabies incidence, showing a potential threat for human health in Africa.

Affected species


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Text submitted to CC-BY-SA license. Source: African vulture crisis by Wikipedia (Historical)