Vultures: Landscape cleaners and sanitisers facing extinction

Birds are indeed part of the ecosystem’s bright and beautiful creation. The flying creatures are the visible environmental pointers of health because they are sensitive to environmental changes. They are a time indicator in the environment; some of them like vultures are the cleaners of the environment while other species are the sentries that alert other animals to danger.

The vulture, which is paramount to the maintenance of a healthy environment in the ecosystem, faces myriad human-made challenges in Africa. Zimbabwe is home to six species of vultures, which are at the risk of extinction. Bird life Zimbabwe, Traditional Medical Practitioners Council (TMPC) and other wildlife rehabilitators are working overtime to put measures for the safeguarding of these species that are crucially nature’s clean-up crew.

The preventing extinctions programme officer for Birdlife Zimbabwe Benhilda Antonio highlighted that according to some research they conducted with traditionalists, there is a strong link between birds and the African culture.

“It is believed that the bird is the highest state of perfection and form of life and when the human soul reaches the highest state it becomes a bird. There are varied human beliefs and practices, which link with bird conversation or extinction. Examples are galore. For instance, the brown-headed parrots are purported to see everything and talk loudly about what they see to enable humans to be kept informed on important matters. The kingfisher, with its ability to catch fish, is regarded as a symbol of success among fisherman and they value it; they believe it enables them to have power over what they desire. The fish eagle symbolises power or helps one achieve specific goals. Southern ground hornbill’s physical appearance is believed to signify death, destruction and loss,” said Antonio.

According to Leroy G. Moyo, preventing extinctions programme manager of Birdlife Zimbabwe, the use of vulture body parts in traditional medicine was identified as one of the drivers contributing 27% towards their extinction.

“The attributes of the vulture to locate carcasses, ability to fly high (6km), good eyesight [eight times better than humans] is believed to help humans have clairvoyance powers. The continued use of the vulture’s body parts by n’angas and others in Zimbabwe for traditional medicines has also contributed to their demise.” said Moyo. The main groups who are using vultures and their parts are young healers who resort to using vulture body parts in initiations and prophets who predict the future and those who help people with spiritual problems such as ‘tsikamutandas’.

With the scarcity of jobs, many are resorting to the use of vulture parts in opening up prophetic churches. Those who are into betting, lottery and criminal activities like armed robberies seek vulture parts to increase intelligence, strength in foretelling and solving spiritual problems. Vulture body parts are well known to be illegally traded nationally and internationally for belief-based use. According to traditional healer the heart, lungs, brains, head, legs and feathers are believed to be the most sought after.

The six commonest vultures in Zimbabwe are the white-backed vulture, white-headed vulture, hooded vulture, the lappet-faced vulture, Cape vulture and the palm-nut vulture. The female vulture usually lays one egg, though sometimes it can lay two eggs which require an incubation period of up to 56 days. Both the male and the female take turns attending to the eggs, though the female spends more time doing it. Both parents work hard to care for their young with one adult remaining very close to the nest until the nestling is about two months old. Once the nestling is a bit older, both parents will forage for food. They can’t carry food with their claws like what many raptors do. The adults store food for their young in their crop, a special pouch inside their throats where food sits before it travels to the stomach to be digested. When the adult returns to the nest, it regurgitates, or throws up this food, which the young chick happily consumes.

According to Moyo, It takes the young vulture around five months before it is able to survive independent of its parents' care. Vultures are able to successfully breed when they are about five or six-years-old. On average, vultures have varied lifespans amongst the different species, ranging from 11 to 50 years or more. “Given that vultures are late maturing birds, and that they lay only two eggs every four years, the impact of poisoning is quite catastrophic. Vultures need 9 years for a pair to be replaced. Six years (sexual maturity) + nine years (pair replacement) = 15-years-old by the time a bird can replace itself.” he said

“Their stomach acid is exceptionally corrosive which allows them to safely digest decaying carcasses infected with various types of bacteria (e.g. botulinum toxin, hog cholera bacteria, rabies and anthrax bacteria) that would be lethal to any other wildlife or humans. So they have a dual role in the wild. By removing carcasses rapidly and efficiently they act as nature’s landscape cleaners — disposing of all the left-overs of wildlife kills and they also act as sanitisers — protecting humans, livestock and wildlife from infectious diseases. Losses of vultures increase the spread of diseases such as rabies and anthrax which can have devastating effects on other wildlife populations,” said Moyo.

The single largest threat to vultures in Zimbabwe is the malicious poisoning of wildlife. Illegal poaching for wildlife trophies has recently become more sophisticated, with poachers now using cyanide and agricultural poisons as less conspicuous alternatives to firearms. But more commonly, vulture poisoning is intentional: circling vultures are great watchmen for poached carcasses, and can alert wildlife authorities to the crime-scene, so poachers will often lace wildlife carcasses with poison to cover their tracks.

Fortunately in Zimbabwe, vultures have special protection under the sixth schedule of the Parks and Wildlife Act Chapter 20:14 as specially protected species. It is illegal to kill a vulture hence Zimbabwe is one of the few African countries which has shown commitment to protect vultures. Key aspects to conserving these magnificent birds are being carried out by Parks and Wildlife in conjunction with Birdlife Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust. These include the determination of population numbers of each species, identifying important areas for breeding and the use of solar tracking units with each unit fitted on a bird so that its movements can be closely monitored.

According to Dr L Marisa of Zimbabwe Union Council of Churches (ZUCOC), registered under TMPC, there is also need to bring conservation education programs for school children with discussions based on wildlife and the role they play in the ecosystem. Visitors and tourists must be educated about the need for vulture conservation, its importance and international awareness. Partnerships with traditional healers associations, traditional medical practitioner’s council, government, Ngos, traditional leadership, communities, parks and environmentalists should move a gear up in conserving the endangered vultures.

On the sidelines of a workshop held by Bird Life Zimbabwe and TMPC on May 24, the spokesperson of Zimbabwe National Practioners Association (ZNPA) Itayi Chisoro indicated that the main culprits behind the scenes are the traditional healers. “Efforts should be made to raise awareness to traditional healers to seek clean ways of obtaining the vulture parts as well asseeking guidance from parks and wildlife authorities. The problem is with the prescriber, in this case the healer” she said. ZNPA registers traditional practitioner and it’s a member of TMPC.

Zimbabwe Traditional Healers Association (ZTHA) vice president Kenneth Rindiya popularly known a as Sekuru Nyamasvisva, said the trading of vulture body parts was a new thing in Zimbabwe. “This issue of vulture body parts trading is common in west Africa where pastors, prophets and bishops of mushrooming churches go to seek religious stamina for their churches. We are working with law enforcement agencies and wildlife authorities to make those causing havoc to be brought to book," he said.

TMPC vice chairperson Timothy Njekete and the TMPC acting registrar concurred that awareness on the conservation of vultures among traditional medicine practitioners should be up-scaled. “We recommend the use of herbal alternatives rather than vulture parts. Those found wanting should be brought to book”, said Njekete. “We call upon all relevant stakeholders to support the vulture’s cause. Funding from the government and Ngos for both TMPC and Birdlife should be intensified,” said Givemore Chanda.  

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