African vultures targeted by poachers, headed for extinction: report

By Ed Stoddard CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Africa's vultures are vanishing, according to a report released on Thursday, a situation that could affect human health and livestock since populations of other scavengers such as rats and jackals could rise as a result. The assessment, carried out by conservation group BirdLife International, found that six of Africa's 11 vulture species were at risk of extinction. Deliberate targeting by poachers is one of the reasons as the birds, which circle the sights where they feed, can alert authorities to the carcasses of illegally slain animals. Africa's elephant and rhino populations are being relentlessly poached for their ivory and horns to meet red-hot demand in newly-affluent Asian economies. "Vultures are important. They come in, they clean up and they leave," said Ross Wanless of BirdLife South Africa. "Other scavengers like rats and jackals will eat a carcass and then will go after livestock or become a pest to humans. And if vultures are removed their numbers can increase." Vultures also help to stem the spread of disease on the world's poorest continent by eating carcasses that would otherwise rot. Other reasons behind the decline of the big birds include indiscriminate poisonings and the popularity of vulture parts for traditional medicine. Since the late 1980s, 98 percent of West Africa’s vultures outside protected nature areas have disappeared, while half the population of the Gyps vulture species in Kenya’s Masai Mara park have gone, the report said. In South Africa, cape vultures have declined by 60-70 percent over the past 20-30 years. The assessment was conducted for the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) "Red List of Threatened Species", which is considered to be the most authoritative estimate of wild bird and animal populations. (Editing by Mark Heinrich)