The Beauty of Ugly
Why is the Cape Griffon Vulture going extinct?

Cape Griffon vulture

The Cape Griffon vulture, the largest bird of its kind in Africa, is also one of the most endangered. Listed as “vulnerable” to extinction by the World Conservation Union (which is similar to “threatened” on the Endangered Species List) the Cape Griffon vulture has suffered a significant population decline over the past few decades. Among the dangers faced by the Capes, which are confined to a small area of south and southwest Africa, is electrocution on power lines. In addition, changes in the migration patterns of large game herds and an increase in domesticated animals (which are usually buried when they die) have diminished the amount of food available to the birds and led to dietary insufficiencies.

Of more concern, however, are mass accidental poisonings, says Maria Diekmann of the Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST) in Namibia, where Cape Griffon vultures are the most endangered of all animal species. Farmers and ranchers commonly poison the carcasses of animals to kill predators like leopards and jackals, which prey on their livestock; the birds, which are carrion eaters and feed exclusively on dead animals, are inadvertently poisoned. “Poison is cheap, easy and effective. The problem is that they do it incorrectly or get incorrect information from the supplier and instead kill non-targeted species. I am also a farmer — our farm faces the cliffs of the last roosting site in Namibia — so I know the problems that they can have. We try hard to work with them,” says Diekmann.

Because of the gregarious nature of vultures, large numbers of the animals can be poisoned at once. “Vultures are incredibly social when eating,” Diekmann explains. “Numbers are security, so they will often wait until there are hundreds of birds to begin eating. A lot of followers and not many leaders. The problem is that if a carcass is poisoned you can kill 50 to 500 birds at once. I cannot think of any other species that this is possible with, and the Asian vulture crisis — 10 million birds dead in just over 10 years — has proved this.”

Cape Griffon vulture 

The Cape Griffon vulture has suffered a significant population decline over the past few decades.

“The Cape Griffon vulture is what I would call a ’super vulture.’ It is bigger, eats more, only roosts on cliffs; the needs are more specific. I think that all of our vulture species are declining. We just see it in the Cape first as the numbers were lower to begin with. [It] is an indicator species of what is probably going on with them all,” she says. The decline of vultures has particularly dramatic implications for the rest of the ecosystem. This is because vultures rapidly consume the bacteria-riddled bodies of dead animals, which would otherwise spread disease. The vultures themselves appear to be immune to many of these diseases. “The fact that they eat together and can consume a carcass in an hour seems to prevent most of these diseases from spreading to our wildlife and domestic animals,” Diekmann says.

To help conserve the Capes, Diekmann and her colleagues with REST, along with other vulture experts, have begun outfitting the birds with satellite telemetry collars, which allow their flight, breeding, and feeding patterns to be monitored and provide information about the sources of contaminants in their environment. “This gives us baseline data to work from, instead of checking the wind and guessing,” she says.

With these and other efforts, Diekmann is hopeful that the Capes can be saved: “Vultures respond well to conservation. A little goes a long way. If we can handle the poison issue, which we are starting to, that can save the population. I am not much of a gambler; I go for the win, and a loss here would be too big of a loss.

  • Wendy Parsons

    I’m not sure what that comment is about… but I think it is horrifying that the Cape Griffon vulture is “vulnerable” to extinction. I pray these stories will wake up more people to the fact that all things are connected. If vultures no longer exist to consume carrion then it seems disease will be more easily spread by rotting carcasses.

  • Lydia Smith

    I am watching this show right now and got curious about these vultures, as I am about so many other animals that are going extinct because of humans. Only humans. I don’t understand how people don’t feel an immense amount of shame every time this happens. Humans are like a disease on this planet, sadly… almost makes me want to cry.Well, I think ultimately we’ll bring about our own extinction, then the earth can resume its natural process. It’s funny that educated people can imagine the future and what direction we’re heading in- even with a few different scenarios and none of them end well, not with the attitude people have. And the ignorant ones don’t care because it will be our children or grandchildren, not us. because we actually don’t care, or believe what we’re told. It’s like the future does not exist yet so people simply don’t want to bother themselves to improve it. Like putting one’s head in the sand. That almost makes me want to cry too- (ok, I’m off my soap-box)

  • Douglas Coulter

    Don’t mention it
    Trying to talk about these ugly birds brings about the same response. Its ok to talk about saving whales and cuddly seals but Vultures? As rabies deaths reached 50,000 in India because of the loss of vultures what other epidemics might we face in the future without earths well adapted clean up crew.

  • bobby jack

    poor animals i cant belive it myself

  • Jim Rodgers

    What can I say? I am an american and have witnessed some many EIOs Ecologically Ignorant Obviously people that kill animals for not a valid reason, simply just for fun!?!???

    I am not against a person hunting a non endangered species as long as they eat what they kill or kill in defense of their life.

    Has anyone ever, especially cattle, sheep, and goat herders, of weeding out the weak to keep the heard strong. By this I mean allow the predators to attack and eat the herd animals that are slow and or stray away from the heard. This is how wild herd species survive and become stronger by allowing the most fit and aware intelligent animals to reproduce. Think about, it your animals will become more valuable. People that poison animals should be &^%%^$% as it does not end with your target species.

    This attitude has brought so many of the world wide predator species to extinction or lowered their numbers so low that inbreeding is a challenge to recovery. Then again in most EIO’s minds the only predator that has any value and worth that should be allow to live on this earth is the Homo sapien. Homo sapiens (Humans) even kill their own species when they are found to think or believe differently. How truely selfish is that? Jim Rodgers

    “The worst destructive element this Earth has is man.” Texas rancher Frank Yturria

  • Eagle-eyes – San Diego

    A agree on we as humans need to protect our planet…..the messages are coming through so loud and clear where ever you look. In nature with the polar caps melting, with the weather that is upside down……better than what James Cameron created in “AVATAR” the movie, I can’t imagine……………..the humans destroy………
    AVATAR”S end was fantastic………….look what happened to the humans when they destroyed the planet…….the Navi people were still too kind!

  • JPO

    I read the posts and find immense joy from you galvanized folk. Let’s step back and return to our roots. It cannot be overstated that evolution has favored Homo sapiens, bringing us to record breaking numbers and potentially a critical mass. Species of both plant and animal must perish in order for the natural order of things to persevere. Mother Nature has had a recorded 6 mass extinctions (over 50% of life wiped clean) over the years. Let us not blame ourselves entirely for a natural shift in climate, or for species extinction. If it is the will of Giha, then it so shall be. I want to protect the Griffon as much as the next person, but sometimes things happen and although they seem senseless and inhumane, they in fact follow universal plan us leptons are unable to comprehend.

  • JMT

    Ok, I just recently worked at International Vulture Awareness Day at my local zoo, and I’m so happy to see that the information is indeed out there. vultures are absolutely essential because of their natural mechanisms for disease control. Vulture stomach acid is so strong that it can kill numerous diseases we barely know how to handle, including anthrax and rabies. They also have a tendency to defecate around a carcass, thereby killing the grass there and preventing other herbivores from getting too close and possibly catching something that could wipe out entire populations. The only beef I have with the article is that it only mentions the power line problem in passing. All the Cape Griffons at the zoo I work at are wing injury birds from Africa, and they are the lucky ones. Most caught in the power lines die instantly, or starve to death because they can no longer fly. This situation is somewhat of a catch-22, however, because it is important that the people in Africa gain access to electricity. As conservationists, we cannot afford to only look at one side of the issue.

  • Bill Christiansen

    It’s too bad that people have forgotten that we don’t own this planet we live on, but are instead merely stewards. It is our responsibility to take care of all the life on this planet, even the ones we don’t personally like (although I can’t see any life form that isn’t beautiful in some way). All life has the same right to existance as we do, and we should be ashamed at the terrible way we have mismanaged our stewardship of this planet.

  • Lisakphotoalbums

    It is quite simple stop using the poison. That is one of the greatest offenses of All.
    Use herders to watch over your livestock. Not kill over your livestock. Watch over.
    If we do not take care of our world we will be the ones standing on a sterile planet, with all of our wondrous toys in our hands, in huge herds, with our minds blank. It will be our own fault to have destroyed the ‘rest of our Natural World’.

  • RAFA

    gdfkjln GOD IS GOOD

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