Vultures are not just birds. They are active players in the seamless flow of the cycle of life. They are the unpaid cleaners of bio-debris who diligently perform their natural task of preventing diseases from spreading through dead animal. If there were no vultures, humans would constantly be plagued with outbreaks of diseases which may potentially emanate from decomposing carcasses. And if humans were to pay for the services of the vulture, the bills would be in billions. Yet, the vultures are under severe threat. Currently in Nigeria and some other parts of Africa, vultures are killed in volts daily. This must stop.
Vulture population is nearing total collapse. From the millions of individual birds a little over a decade ago, the population has dropped to a few hundreds. There are about 30 vulture species throughout the world. Eleven of these species are found in Africa while six are native to Nigeria. Of the 11 in Africa, eight are threatened while five of the six species in Nigeria are on the brink of extinction. Whether we realize it or not there is a state of emergency in this regard. These birds who have, by their mere act of feeding, saved the government huge sums of money by preventing outbreak of diseases such as botulism and anthrax are now ending up as mere game, in traditional medicine markets, in constant conflicts with man over habitat and dead from accidental poisoning.
Naturally, vultures shouldn’t be in this acute situation. According to many traditional folklores, vulture are sacred birds or messengers of the gods helping to take sacrifices to the heavens. For example, the Yorubas of West Africa have it in their oral poetry and incantations that “…akìí pa igún, akìí jẹ́ igún, akìí fi ẹyẹ igún bọ orí”. Meaning “..we don’t kill the vulture, we don’t eat the vulture and we don’t use the vulture for sacrifice. It is like that in many other cultures even beyond Africa. Sadly, Ibadan and Ikare are among the three hubs of vulture sales in Nigeria, joined by Kano, according to a 2017 survey by NCF. The same features that make the popular raptors sacred and protected seem to be working against them in other climes. There are many reports of vulture parts seen in voodoo markets and in possession of traditional healers and sorcerers. Recently a vulture and its owner was “arrested” by the police in Maiha, Adamawa state over beliefs that it was associated with ill-luck. The woman who held the vulture captive on the other hand, claimed that it was for protection of her husband who was in jail. Thankfully, the Nigerian Conservation Foundation stepped in to make sure that the vulture is not returned to its tormentor.
Apart from belief related killings, vultures are declining in numbers through mass poisoning. It has been found that residues of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac (sold under several trade names) for the treatment of pains in cattle is one of the leading causes of mass poisoning of vultures. In a bid to prevent sick cows from dying, herdsmen usually use this drug to treat their animals during the long nomadic grazing movements. If the animal eventually dies, and the scavengers feed on it, they die en masse. Also, vultures are common sights in abattoirs. When vultures feed on leftovers from the slaughterhouse it is usually their last meal. To prevent unintentional mass killings like this, a thorough orientation must be given to all in the meat production value chain. Diclofenac, originally developed for human use only, is cheap and very effective for cattle farmers, so the knee-jerk approach of banning the drug may be hard to implement. Rather finding a safe substitute and ensuring it is adopted swiftly by cattle farmers is a viable option.
A multidisciplinary team of expert must work together to end this killings before the consequences become obvious. The Agricultural Extension apparatus of the nation must be called upon to meet this challenge. Animal science associations, cattle rearers associations, the National Orientation agency, Center for Disease Control, and the Environment ministry must join hands with NGOs such as NCF, Birdlife International, A.P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (APLORI) among others that have taken it upon themselves to preserve and be the voice of these voiceless birds.
A verification of what ailments vulture parts are believed to cure should also be made and empirical proofs that vulture parts does nothing to treat such disease should be presented. Religion leaders need to assure their followers that the vulture is another unique creature in the universe just like any other and that they are not demons or evil spirits. This way, the public health epidemic waiting to happen if vultures go extinct would be prevented. The government also needs to set up an apparatus that sees to resolving conflicts between wildlife and humans.
There is an ongoing campaign to save the vultures. Everyone has a role to play. Learn facts about the vultures today and tell it to others. You never can tell, one who needs to know may just be in your network.
Bamgbose studied Agricultural Extension at the University of Ibadan. He is a wildlife and conservation enthusiast. He can be reached on [email protected] he tweets @pomare3