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Endangered vulture species nesting in Ghana is rare good news about raptors

by Sean Mowbray on 2 February 2024/ Mongabay

A white-backed vulture. Researchers from the International Bird Conservation Partnership, Ghanaian and U.S. universities, and the Ghana Forestry Commission surveyed Mole National Park, the country’s largest protected area, for vultures. They found nests of three critically endangered species. Image courtesy of Nico Arcilla.


  • Researchers surveying Ghana’s Mole National Park have found three critically endangered vulture species nesting there.

  • In Ghana and elsewhere across Africa, vultures are threatened by poisoning, habitat loss, hazards including power transmission lines, and hunting for “belief-based” trade.

  • This is the first observation of nesting hooded vultures in the park and the first white-backed and white-headed vulture nests seen anywhere in the country.

  • The researchers say as well as greater efforts to prevent poaching, education and enforcement aimed at curbing illegal trade in vulture parts is needed to protect these scavengers.

Researchers recently reported finding three critically endangered vulture species nesting in Mole National Park, Ghana’s largest protected area. It’s the first scientific observation of hooded vultures (Necrosyrtes monachus) nesting in the park, and the first report of white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) and white-headed vultures (Trigonoceps occipitalis) nesting anywhere in the country. The findings are published in The Journal of Raptor Research.

“The fact that Mole National Park has three out of the four critically endangered African vulture species just shows how vital it is to support these protected areas,” paper co-author Nico Arcilla, president of the International Bird Conservation Partnership, told Mongabay in an interview.


The researchers say Mole National Park may serve as a last stronghold for these species in Ghana, particularly the white-headed vulture. “We have no evidence that it’s anywhere else in Ghana,” Arcilla said. “There may be, hopefully, other areas where they might be in Ghana, where they simply haven’t been seen.”


Between 2020 and 2022, researchers spent 31 days in the field in Mole searching for vultures, covering around 761 square kilometers (294 square miles) of the 4,840-km2 (1,869-mi2) park on foot and in trucks.


Overall, they estimated populations of 29-36 hooded vultures, 25-73 white-backed vultures, and only three or four white-headed vultures. Crucially, they found six hooded vulture nests, 10 white-backed vulture nests and one white-headed vulture nest. While the researchers didn’t spot Africa’s fourth critically endangered vulture species, Rüppell’s vulture (Gyps rueppelli), they say the species may be a rare visitor to the park during the dry season, based on photographs taken by other scientists. They also identified other threatened raptor species such as the bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus), martial eagle (Polemaetus bellicosus), Beaudouin’s snake-eagle (Circaetus beaudouini) and the tawny eagle (Aquila rapax).


Ornithologist Darcy Ogada, Africa program director at The Peregrine Fund, who was not involved in the study, said the paper is a “good first step” toward assessing the park’s vulture populations and adds valuable information about existing populations in West Africa.

“Historically, West Africa was a very important place for vultures, and it still is for hooded vultures and probably palm-nut vultures [Gypohierax angolensis], but populations have been really decimated,” she said. “Hopefully the publication of this paper will act as a catalyst for more interest in vultures, not only in Ghana, but across the West Africa region.”

A pair of hooded vultures in Mole National Park. “We’re talking about just a remnant of a population left that is just hanging on by a thread,” said avian ecologist Nico Arcilla said. “If these birds are not actively protected, they will disappear.” Image courtesy of Nico Arcilla.


Vultures on the brink in West Africa

Globally, vulture populations face enormous pressures and have gone from some of the most abundant large raptors in the world to among the most endangered, said Chris Bowden, co-chair of the Vulture Specialist Group at the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority. They face a litany of threats, including both intentional and accidental poisoning, persecution, habitat loss, and the gantlet of power transmission lines crisscrossing their habitat.


In Ghana, and across West Africa more broadly, vulture populations have been decimated by poisoning, persecution, and poaching for what scientists term “belief-based use”. This catchall phrase includes the use of vulture parts in a wide range of traditional medicine, cultural and “novel” practices to bring good luck. Studies have indicated an active network of poaching and trafficking of vultures across West Africa.


“All these factors are causing the decline of these vulture species in Ghana,” said Samuel Boakye Yiadom, a co-author of the new paper and a graduate research associate with the International Bird Conservation Partnership, who has researched the trade in hooded vultures across Ghana. “People are also hunting vulture eggs.”


This trade has rapidly emerged as a growing threat to vultures, according to Bowden, who was not involved in the study. “It is clearly an issue that needs more attention.”


To protect these critically endangered vultures in Ghana, the research group suggests immediate action to support rangers to tackle poaching in protected areas such as Mole, and a combination of education and enforcement to stem the illegal trade. “It is essential that we embark on a nationwide public education [campaign] on the decline of vultures in Ghana. We should also educate people on the ecological importance of these birds,” Boakye Yiadom said.


Many ecological questions remain about Mole’s critically endangered vultures, including their presence in the rest of the park. Impassable roads prevented the research team from surveying the northern areas of the park, but Arcilla said past mammal surveys indicated the area is highly depleted, making it less likely that the scavengers persist there.

Other questions that researchers hope to answer in future studies include the movement patterns of the birds, how often they leave the protected area, and whether vultures are also still present in nearby Bui National Park.


“Our work has shown that there are breeding individuals [in Mole National Park],” said co-author Nathaniel Annorbah, a lecturer at Ghana’s University of Environment and Sustainable Development. “The populations might be small, but they have the potential to replenish themselves and possibly grow bigger if they get enough protection.”


Citations:

Goded, S., Annorbah, N. N., Boissier, O., Rosamond, K. M., Yiadom, S. B., Kolani, Z., … Arcilla, N. (2023). Abundance and breeding ecology of critically endangered vultures in mole National Park, Ghana. Journal of Raptor Research, 57(4), 628-639. doi:10.3356/jrr-22-54


Buij, R., Nikolaus, G., Whytock, R., Ingram, D. J., & Ogada, D. (2015). Trade of threatened vultures and other raptors for fetish and bushmeat in West and Central Africa. Oryx, 50(4), 606-616. doi:10.1017/S0030605315000514


Daboné, C., Ouéda, A., Thompson, L. J., Adjakpa, J. B., & Weesie, P. D. (2022). Trade in vulture parts in West Africa: Burkina Faso may be one of the main sources of vulture carcasses. Bird Conservation International, 33. doi:10.1017/S095927092100054X


Banner image: A white-backed vulture. Researchers from the International Bird Conservation Partnership, Ghanaian and U.S. universities, and the Ghana Forestry Commission surveyed Mole National Park, the country’s largest protected area, for vultures. They found nests of three critically endangered species. Image courtesy of Nico Arcilla.


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