21 December, 2023
By Kristen M. Rosamond
Hooded Vultures. Photo by Nico Arcilla.
Vultures in West Africa battle some of the issues commonly plaguing wildlife today, such as habitat loss, hunting, and poisoning, but they also face a more unique set of obstacles. Vultures and other raptors in Africa are often persecuted for regional “fetish” markets where they are sold for ritual use. For example, in West Africa, people pay for vulture carcasses, parts, and eggs used in rituals believed to provide benefits such as protection from evil or increased intelligence. Public perception of vultures varies widely across cultures, with some viewing these birds as supernaturally powerful and clairvoyant and others as evil omens and harbingers of death. In Ghana in particular, vultures are commonly seen as sinister and unclean due to their associations with misfortune and witchcraft. Due to such threats, existing surveys of vultures in West Africa have shown that these birds are highly vulnerable to extinction, with several critically endangered species surviving mainly or only in protected areas. These are the focus of a new study published by IBCP co-authors in the Journal of Raptor Research.
White-backed Vulture. Photo by Nico Arcilla.
Given that vultures provide critical services to keep ecosystems healthy and balanced, they are in desperate need of some positive press. To assess vulture abundance and diversity in West Africa, an international team of researchers conducted surveys in the southern region of Mole National Park to estimate population sizes of three critically endangered species: the Hooded Vulture, White-backed Vulture, and White-headed Vulture. The research team also documented vulture nesting activity and calculated distances between nests, as well as from nests to human settlements and roads. Population sizes were relatively low, with an estimated 29-36 Hooded Vultures, 25-73 White-backed Vultures, and only 3-4 White-headed Vultures in the surveyed area. These findings include the first records of nests in either Mole National Park or Ghana as a whole for all three of these understudied species. Results also support the idea that Hooded Vultures are more habituated to human presence than other species, as their nests in Mole are located closer to human settlements than those of the White-backed Vulture.
White-backed Vulture nest. Photo by Greg Walczak.
While rangers in areas like Mole National Park make concerted efforts to conserve vultures, the plight of these ecologically important yet stigmatized species needs more attention. Much of the recommended conservation measures must take place on the local level. For example, reducing poaching, preventing the killing of vultures for wildlife trade, and protecting vulture habitat and food resources will be paramount to the survival of critically endangered vultures in Ghana and West Africa. However, addressing vultures’ declining trends also requires international collaboration and education. People can become advocates for vultures by spreading the word, joining or supporting research and conservation efforts, and partaking in tourism in areas like Mole National Park, which creates incentives for conservation through income for protected lands.
White-headed Vulture. Photo by Greg Walczak.