Where are the vultures?
Are the vultures on the verge of extinction? This is one question that comes to the mind after it dawned on humans that the carnivorous bird of prey that scavenges on carrions have suddenly disappeared from the environment.
From the south to the north, when was the last time anyone sighted a kettle, committee or wave of vultures? The unique answer you get is that vultures have not been seen over a long time ago.
A group of vultures in flight is called a ‘kettle’, while the term ‘committee’ refers to a group of vultures resting on the ground or on trees. A group of vultures that are feeding is termed ‘wake’.
In recent times, vultures have almost or completely disappeared from the environment. In the past, the birds were seen around neighborhoods, especially abattoirs, waste sites or on the highways feeding on dead animals.
According to wildlife conservation experts, vultures are not just birds. They are active players in the seamless flow of the cycle of life. They are the unpaid cleaners of bio-debris who diligently perform their natural task of preventing diseases from spreading through dead animals. If there were no vultures, humans would constantly be plagued with outbreak of diseases that may emanate from decomposing carcasses. And if humans were to pay for the services of the vulture, the bills would be prohibitive.
Yet, the vultures are under severe threat. Currently in Nigeria and some other parts of Africa, vultures are killed in volts daily.
Vulture population is nearing total collapse. Research shows that from the millions of individual birds a little over a decade ago, the population has dropped to a few hundreds. There are about 30 vulture species throughout the world and 11 of these species are found in Africa while six are native to Nigeria. Of the 11 in Africa, eight are threatened while five of the six species in Nigeria are on the brink of extinction.
“Whether we realise it or not, there is a state of emergency in this regard. These birds that have, by their mere act of feeding, saved the government huge sums of money by preventing outbreak of diseases such as botulism and anthrax are now ending up as mere game in traditional medicine markets, in constant conflicts with man over habitat and dead from accidental poisoning”, said an expert, warning that naturally, vultures shouldn’t be in this acute situation.
According to folklores, vultures are sacred birds or messengers of the gods helping to take sacrifices to the heavens. For example, the Yoruba have it in their oral poetry and incantations that “…akìí pa igún, akìí jẹ́ igún, akìí fi ẹyẹ igún bọ orí” meaning “we don’t kill the vulture, we don’t eat the vulture and we don’t use the vulture for sacrifice”. It is like that in many other cultures, even beyond Africa.
Sadly, it is observed that Ibadan and Ikare in the South West zone are among the three hubs of vulture sales in Nigeria, joined by Kano, according to a 2017 survey by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation.
The same features that make the popular raptors sacred and protected seem to be working against them in other climes. There are many reports of vulture parts seen in voodoo markets and in possession of traditional healers and sorcerers. Recently, a vulture and its owner got “arrested” by the police in Maiha, Adamawa State over beliefs that it is associated with bad luck. The woman who held the vulture captive on the other hand, claimed that it was for protection of her husband who was in jail. Thankfully, the Nigerian Conservation Foundation stepped in to make sure that the vulture is not returned to its tormentor.
Apart from belief-related killings, vultures are declining in numbers through mass poisoning. It has been found that residues of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac (sold under several trade names) for the treatment of pains in cattle is one of the leading causes of mass poisoning of vultures. In a bid to prevent sick cows from dying, herdsmen usually use this drug to treat their animals during the long nomadic grazing movements. If the animal eventually dies, and the vultures feed on it, they die en masse. Also, vultures are common sights at abattoirs. When they feed on leftovers from the slaughterhouse, it is usually their last meal.
To prevent unintentional mass killings like this, experts have suggested that a thorough orientation be given to all in the meat production value chain.
Temi Bamgbose, who studied agriculture extension at the University of Ibadan and a wildlife and conservation enthusiast, said: “Diclofenac, originally developed for human use only, is cheap and very effective for cattle farmers, so the knee-jerk approach of banning the drug may be hard to implement. Rather, finding a safe substitute is a viable option.
“A multidisciplinary team of experts must work together to end this killings before the consequences become obvious. The agricultural extension apparatus of the nation must be called upon to meet this challenge. Animal science associations, cattle rearers associations, the National Orientation Agency, Centre for Disease Control, and the Environment Ministry must join hands with non-governmental organisations such as NCF, Birdlife International, A.P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (APLORI) that have taken it upon themselves to preserve and be the voice of these voiceless birds.
“A verification of what ailments vulture parts are believed to cure should also be made. Religious leaders need to assure their followers that the vulture is another unique creature in the universe just like any other and that they are not demons or evil spirits. This way, the public health epidemic waiting to happen if vultures go extinct would be prevented. The government also needs to set up an apparatus that sees to resolving conflicts between wildlife and humans”.
In 2020, reports had it that globally, the population of vultures had suffered serious decline.
Investigations revealed that Illegal wildlife trade and the use of vultures for rituals decimated the population of the unique birds in Nigeria.
“Results of a recent study on the current status of vultures in Nigeria indicated that their distribution ranges have been severely restricted as vultures are no longer sighted where they ones thrived in huge numbers”, observed Ruth Akagu, Species Officer at the NCF. “There is an ongoing campaign to save the vultures. Everyone has a role to play. Learn facts about the vultures today and tell it to others. You never can tell, one who needs to know may just be in your network,” she advised.
●• Additional reports by Nigerian Conservation Foundation