Vultures are currently the fastest declining group of birds globally and recent work suggests that vultures are threatened across all of Africa. As a result, several African vulture species are likely to be up-listed to Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List (2015) with others listed as Endangered. The primary threat to vultures is poisoning. People put poison, often in the form of pesticides, on carcasses or dead animals trying to kill lions and hyenas, which occasionally kill their livestock. Over 100 vultures can be killed at just one carcass, so the impact of this activity has been enormous.
Scavengers play a critical role in decomposition and disease control, and loss of vultures can have huge effects on the environment and in some cases, lead to major economic losses as well. Loss of vultures in India is estimated to have caused nearly $34 billion in damages, partially due to an increase in feral dog populations following vulture declines that precipitated rabies outbreaks in dogs and humans. In addition to healthcare costs, loss of vultures in Africa could have important implications for the tourism industry given the likely rise in rotting carcasses that would arise from their demise becoming an unpleasant nuisance to tourists.
Vultures are also important indicators of ecosystem health. Given large range sizes and dependence on high wildlife density, vultures indicate ecosystem health at the landscape scale. Vultures can also be important indicators of poaching activity as they are attracted to large carcasses, such as those of poached elephant and rhino, in large numbers. In addition, because vulture populations are likely to be more sensitive to poisoning than lions, they may prove to be important indicators of conservation success when it comes to mitigating human-predator conflicts. Vulture conservation thus has important ecological and economic ramifications and merits further attention.
Vulture experts identified Southern Tanzania as an area likely to be important for vultures, but where little was currently known about the status, population trends, or threats to vultures. No systematic studies of vultures have been done in Tanzania since the 70’s and no research has ever been done in Southern Tanzania.
In 2013, North Carolina Zoo in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society conducted vulture surveys in Ruaha and Katavi National Park, and confirmed the importance of this landscape for African vultures, with high vulture abundance and currently low threats (i.e. limited poisoning suspected). In 2014, in order to establish a collaborative and sustainable vulture monitoring program in Ruaha and Katavi, WCS and North Carolina Zoo, with assistance from the Tanzanian Bird Atlas, developed a training program for TANAPA rangers to teach rangers how to identify vultures to facilitate their data collection on vulture numbers at carcasses and on vulture nests, as well as to establish a protocol in the event of a poisoning event. In 2015, we continued survey efforts to monitor populations and also tagged two White-backed vultures. Using satellite telemetry, we can now follow these vultures and see how they use the landscape. Vultures can have huge ranges and it is important to understand where they go if we are going to protect them. We also need more information on their ranges to better understand trends we are seeing in the surveys we have been doing.