Salvaging scavengers and scaling down illegal trade

Cape griffon
Cape griffon
Pangolin
Pangolin
Tagged vultures
Tagged vultures
Pangolin with tracker

The largest and most recognizable bird of prey – the vulture, is the most threatened avian species with about 89% of Africa’s vulture species extinct or severely declining.

NACSO’s Natural Resource Management Working Group had an information sharing session late last year where Maria Diekmann from Rare & Endangered Species Trust (REST) gave a presentation on the crisis facing African vultures and pangolins.

Namibia is home to 7 vulture species: Cape Griffon, Egyptian, Hooded, Palmnut, Lappetfaced, Whitebacked and Whiteheaded vulture. In 2015 the Cape griffon was listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red data book.

The focus on poaching is usually on iconic species such as elephants and rhinos, but vultures are also affected by the poaching crisis. The decline in vulture populations in Africa is mainly due to poachers poisoning elephant carcasses, which vultures feed on, to throw off law enforcement which use circling vultures as a beacon to find illegal activities. In 2013, for example, 500 dead vultures surrounded a pesticide loaded elephant carcass poached in the Zambezi region. Accidental or secondary poisoning also occurs especially with Human-Wildlife Conflict incidents, where in retaliation to livestock loss by predators, farmers will poison carcasses to attract and kill predators. Vultures that feed on these carcasses or on the poisoned predators can be poisoned.

REST has been working diligently to decrease the decline in vulture populations in Namibia through extensive research, establishment of vulture restaurants, and bird ringing. It is important to protect vultures because they have a major role in safeguarding the ecosystem. These scavengers clear up to 70% of Africa’s carrion. They are also inhibitors of diseases such as anthrax, botulism and rabies, and do not spread these as previously believed. They prevent the spread of diseases from rotting carcasses due to their ability to efficiently clean out carcasses in a short period of time. Vultures may not be the cutest birds in the sky but they are vital to nature and human health.

Maria Diekmann’s talk moved from the largest bird in the sky to a small and scaly ground dwelling mammal.

Little is known about the pangolin because it is difficult to study in the wild due to its solitary and nocturnal state. The brown and scaly Cape pangolin is not familiar to most people. Namibia’s Cape pangolin is the only of 8 species (4 Asian and 4 African) that can survive in arid regions. In 2015 it was declared as the most illegally trafficked animal by the IUCN and in 2016, CITES upgraded all 8 species to Appendix I. These small animals are hunted for their scales and meat and are caught live for sale in other countries, the scales are used in African and Chinese traditional medicine. REST has been tracking pangolins in order to get more information on their behaviour and thus find suitable management strategies to protect the species. 

REST is working diligently to raise awareness about vultures and pangolins in Namibia and how best to conserve and protect these species. To learn more about their conservation work contact REST at rest@iway.na or call 0813679425. “Let us not fail our feathered and scaled friends”.

Siphiwe Lutibezi
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