High in the sky
Ruaha vulture refuge
Against a backdrop of plummeting vulture numbers worldwide Ruaha National Park and southern Tanzania are lights in an otherwise gloomy tale.
Currently vultures are the fastest declining group of birds in the world. The IUCN Red List was updated in 2015 to indicate that of the eleven African species four are now listed as critically endangered and three as endangered.
“The essential role that Vultures play in maintaining healthy eco-systems and disposing of carcasses and associated disease is often over-looked,” says Aaron Nicholas, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Program Director for the Ruaha-Katavi Landscape Program in Tanzania.
These often maligned birds are defenceless against poisons used by humans in retaliatory acts after livestock depredation by predators, and by poachers who poison dead elephant and rhino to prevent rangers using the vultures to locate the carcass. Just one poisoned carcass can easily kill 100 vultures. Carbofuran pesticides appear to be widely used for this purpose and efforts to ban these pesticides have been mostly unsuccessful.
Another threat is the traditional medicine trade where vulture parts are prescribed by healers for people who wish to ‘see into the future’ (remember vultures are far-sighted).
“The declining numbers of these vital scavengers affects the balance of nature,” says Pietro Luraschi, Head Guide at Kwihala Camp in Ruaha National Park.
Rotting carcasses are breeding grounds for insects such as blow flies, flesh flies andhouse flies which are major vectors for livestock, wildlife and human diseases. These diseases are easily spread and often have catastrophic results – typhoid,cholera, dysentery,salmonella, anthrax, myiasis, flystrikeandtuberculosis to name just a few.
“Such an imbalance always leads to terrible consequences as it has a domino effect on everything else,” adds Luraschi.
Since 2013 WCS, the Tanzania National Parks Authority and experts from North Carolina Zoo have been monitoring these amazing birds in the Ruaha area. The research is already confirming that southern Tanzania’s protected areas provide essential refuge to substantial vulture populations.
These protected areas are strongholds for four species – African white-backed vulture, Hooded vulture, White-headed vulture and Lappet-faced vulture.
A vulture movement study, using satellite telemetry units, will help to confirm whether southern Tanzania contains a separate population of vultures to the northern areas, and if they overlap with Zambia and Mozambique. It is also guiding park protection efforts as vultures are naturally expert at locating carcasses, including poached elephants.
“Knowing that there is a stronghold in southern Tanzania where the population is actually in good shape is of huge importance as allows more time to solve the critical situation elsewhere,” says Dr. Corinne Kendall of North Carolina Zoo.
So when you visit Ruaha, please keep an eye on the sky and take a minute to appreciate the presence and work of these magnificently adapted waste managers. This is one of their last bastions.
Hooded Vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus): CRITICALLY ENDANGERED
White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus): CRITICALLY ENDANGERED
White-headed (Vulture Trigonoceps occipitalis): CRITICALLY ENDANGERED
Rüppell’s Vulture (Gyps rueppellii): CRITICALLY ENDANGERED
Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres): ENDANGERED
Lappet-faced Vulture (Torgos tracheliotos): ENDANGERED
Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus): ENDANGERED
Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus): NEAR THREATENED
Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus): NEAR THREATENED
Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus): LEAST CONCERN
Palm-nut Vulture (Gypohierax angolensis): LEAST CONCERN. Note: palm-nut vultures are vegetarian.
Interested in joining us in Ruaha and Southern Tanzania to witness these famous scavengers for yourself? Why not get in touch with your trusted travel agent/tour operator or send us an enquiry to start planning your trip!
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