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In search of vultures’ secrets: a journey through Togo, West Africa

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

Aug 5, 2021

A Hooded Vulture flies over Togo’s Oti river valley.

Vulture populations in Africa and elsewhere have declined rapidly towards extinction in recent decades, but little is known about their populations and threats in many West African countries. Following our surveys in Ghana in 2020, an IBCP team took a journey through Togo in June and July, 2021, in search of vultures and their secrets: where may they still be found, where have they disappeared, and what might be causing their declines? Togo’s rural residents hunt many birds for food, but most don’t consume vultures. Vultures in Togo don’t annoy farmers by eating their rice, millet or corn, like sparrows, finches, and other birds. And unlike other raptors, vultures don’t kill – not farmers’ chickens nor anything else. They don’t steal grain or fruit from anyone, living or dead. Vultures only take what is no longer needed by anyone else and use it to sustain themselves. Or at least they did until recently, when they started mysteriously vanishing at an alarming rate. Why?

A pair of critically endangered Hooded Vultures in Togo.

We found small numbers of critically endangered Hooded Vultures near slaughterhouses in urban areas of Togo’s interior. Until 30 years ago, Togo’s vultures would have had plenty to eat in Togo’s rural areas. For decades, Togo had a strict protected area system that hosted elephants, lions, and other large wildlife that would have naturally provided a steady supply of food for vultures. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, however, political unrest led to the collapse of much of the protected area system and the mass slaughter of many of Togo’s remaining wild mammal populations. Today, many former wildlife reserves and national parks have now been converted into farms, and most of the mammals in these areas are now cattle or goats, whose lives end at slaughterhouses rather than in the countryside. Thus, Togo’s vultures appear to have adjusted to the changing times by moving from rural areas to cities. But even here, many residents told us, they appear to be vanishing. Again, why?

Vultures and other wildlife available in Togo’s main “fetish” market for use in sorcery.

Vultures have a special power, which is very rare in this world: the ability to take death and transform it into something that sustains life. Some might see this as the ultimate secret, and perhaps in part for this reason, their body parts are in high demand as "fetish"objects in traditional sorcery, which according to ancestral beliefs, protect users from evil. Togo’s capital, Lomé, hosts the largest fetish market in West Africa, a lucrative business that is run by traders from the neighboring country of Benin. Here, we found a large number of dead vultures for sale, including critically endangered African White-backed and White-headed Vultures, as well as seven Hooded Vultures that had been killed within days of our visit. Thus, despite all the changes vultures in Togo have survived to date, the fact that they are recognized as having supernatural powers has led to their targeted killings. In response, IBCP is working with partners in Togo to monitor vulture numbers and engage in conservation efforts to mitigate their declines and prevent their extinctions.

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