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Protected lands provide a last stand for critically endangered vultures in West Africa

by Kristen M. Rosamond and Nico Arcilla

23 February, 2024

White-headed Vulture in Mole National Park, Ghana. Credit: Grzegorz Walczak.

Among the fastest-declining birds in the world, African vultures battle many of the problems 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, many people pay for vulture carcasses, heads, and eggs used in rituals believed to provide benefits such as protection from evil, success in business, or increased intelligence.

Public perceptions of vultures vary widely across cultures, with some viewing these birds as supernaturally powerful and clairvoyant and others as evil omens and harbingers of death. In Ghana, vultures are commonly seen as sinister and unclean due to their associations with misfortune and witchcraft.

Due to such threats, these birds are highly vulnerable to extinction, with several critically endangered species surviving mainly, or only, in protected areas. However, as vultures consume carrion, they play a critical role in waste removal, nutrient cycling, and disease prevention, providing critical services to keep ecosystems healthy.

Given how little appreciation they tend to receive for the services they provide, vultures are in desperate need of some positive press to encourage their protection. To contribute to their conservation in Ghana, we conducted surveys in Mole National Park to estimate population sizes of three critically endangered species: the Hooded Vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus), White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus), and White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis). We also identified vulture nests and documented vulture nesting activity, as well as their distances to human settlements and roads.

The research is published in the Journal of Raptor Research.

Population sizes were relatively low, with an estimated 29–36 Hooded Vultures, 25–73 White-backed Vultures, and only three to four White-headed Vultures in the surveyed area. Our findings include the first record and descriptions of nests in Mole National Park and Ghana as a whole for all three of these understudied species.

White-backed Vulture. Credit: Nico Arcilla.

Hooded Vultures. Credit: Nico Arcilla.

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