Saving the vultures of Saudi Arabia
By Dr. Mohammad Shobraq, 21 Dec 2016
An overview of the vulture species that nest in Saudi Arabia, the threats they are facing and what BirdLife is doing to help them.
Vultures are one of the most threatened families of birds in the entire world and their decline has been shockingly rapid. Some species in Africa and the Indian subcontinent have declined by over 95% in the last few decades, a rate faster than even that of the Passenger Pigeon or Dodo.
The biggest driver of these declines is human impact; either by poisoning (either intentional or otherwise) or from persecution. As a result, many old world vultures are now Critically Endangered – meaning they are at risk of going extinct in our lifetimes.
And while vultures may not be the most sympathetic-looking of birds, these efficient scavengers are vital in preventing the spread of disease, locating and picking clean carcasses before disease spores can develop. Thus, their demise leads to economic, social and environmental problems.
How do vulture declines affect humans?
Vulture populations are currently collapsing at an unsustainable rate across Africa and the Middle East, largely due to poisoning – either as an unintentional consequence of farmers lacing cattle carcasses with poison to deter predators from livestock, or more intractably, intentionally, as poachers poison elephant carcasses to kill vultures, as the sight of circling vultures overhead alerts authorities to the poachers’ illegal activities.
Their decline mirrors that of an earlier decline of vultures on the Indian subcontinent, which occurred due to widespread use of a veterinary drug, diclofenac, which proved toxic to vultures. What subsequently happened in the Indian subcontinent should serve as a reminder to humanity of the importance of vultures to the ecosystem.
In this region, poisoning saw vulture numbers plummet from approximately 40 million in the nineties to up to about 10,000 individuals in 2003, which led to an increase in poverty and unemployment in India, where villagers used to clean the bones by feeding bone tissue to vultures, then grinding them and selling them once again as Calcium powder for the agriculture industry.
In addition to this, the disappearance of the vultures led to health problems due to an increase in the numbers of stray dogs, which moved in to take the place vacated by vultures in the food chain.
A study has estimated that the numbers of stray dogs surged by 5.5 million between 1992 and 2003. This rise in numbers led to a spread of rabies in rural areas until it became one of the most deadly diseases in India in recent years, with the number of dog bite casualties reaching about 40 million cases between 1992 and 2006. This in turn led to the increase of funds spent on covering health and social problems.
It is estimated that the associated health costs absorbed by the Indian government as a result of the decline of vultures between 1993 and 2006 amounts to US$34 billion.
In Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, the number of vultures have declined significantly. Of the five species recorded in the region, all are threatened; some at a local level, the rest on a global scale.
The Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotus is one of the species that nests in the kingdom; but unlike the others, which lay their eggs on mountain slopes, the Lappet-faced Vulture builds its nests on trees. The kingdom contains the largest number of Lappet-faced Vultures of all the countries in its range in the region. Recent studies show that this species has disappeared from the Levant and its numbers have decreased in some areas of the eastern Arabian Peninsula – therefore it is now categorized as Endangered. The Lappet-faced Vulture has a powerful beak, which can cut the skin of dead animals.
The Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus nests in mountain slopes along the Sarawat Mountains (Western Arabian Peninsula) and the mountains of Aja and Salma (Ha’il Region) and Tuwaiq Mountain (Plateau of Nejd). Additionally, migratory flocks arrive from Central Asia, Palestine and Iraq.
The Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus is also locally known as Al Alia by the people of the desert, and it has an old Arabic name, Al Anouk. Although it is known to nest in the kingdom. some migratory flocks arrive in order to spend the winter there, and some of them pass by the country during their journey to reach their wintering areas in Africa.
Numbers of the Bearded Vulture Gypaetys barbatus have decreased in recent years and it is now endangered at the regional level (the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant). It may no longer nest in the kingdom.
The fifth species, Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus, is a migratory bird that arrives in autumn to spend the winter in Saudi Arabia.
Why are vultures declining?
To identify the causes of the deaths of vultures in the world, I would like to start mentioning the main reason, which drew the world’s attention to this issue, behind the decline in numbers of these birds in the Indian continent which was the use of human medicine to treat animals.
Studies carried out by biologists and veterinary doctors showed that the cause of the deaths, after analyzing many samples of dead vultures, was the use of the Diclofenac by livestock owners used to ease the pain of the cattle. When cattle dies, vultures feed on them, leading to kidney failure and death. The use of Diclofenac is now banned in India.
Unfortunately, despite the knowledge of this problem in many countries, the medicine is still used in European vulture-range countries such as Italy and Spain.
There is a strong opposition by environmental organizations, including BirdLife, to stop the use of this medicine to protect European vultures populations.
As previously mentioned, poisoning is also a major threat to vultures. In Africa, some large farm owners put poison in carcasses to kill lions and hyenas – vultures then swoop in to feast on the carcass and are also killed.
In recent years, illegal elephant and rhinoceros poachers have started poisoning animal carcasses in order to kill vultures. Vultures use their incredible sight to swiftly recognize the location of fresh carcasses, and the sight of circling vultures can alert the guards of the poachers’ location.
In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, scientific studies conducted by researchers from the Saudi Wildlife Authority indicate that a huge number of deaths of vultures come as a result of poisoning.
Another reason that has led to the deterioration of the number of vultures in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world is pesticide spraying. Vultures, despite their stomachs’ impressive ability to digest the tissue of the animal that has died as a result of viral or bacterial diseases, are vulnerable to the toxic chemicals used in insect eradication. Deaths of Griffon Vultures have been recorded in Saudi Arabia in regions where pesticides are used to control populations of desert locust.
Other causes of the deterioration are disturbances to nesting sites, especially those that nest in trees like the Lappet-faced vulture.
Compounding these issues, vultures are late bloomers; the Egyptian vulture doesn’t reach maturity until it is three, and others reach it at the age of 11 years, such as the Lappet-faced Vulture. It also tends to only lay one egg at a time, so it can take struggling vulture populations a long time to bounce back even after rigorous conservation work.
The incubation period for the chick lasts between 9-12 months, meaning that the reproductive period, for certain types such as the Lappet-faced Vulture, requires a significant effort by the parents. Therefore, the inconvenience of nesting disturbances can affect the reproduction of these birds and might lead in lack of production thus resulting in a decrease in their numbers.
Finally, another threat is poorly-planned powerlines, windfarms and roads, which result in the death of thousands of vultures across Europe and Asia every year.
BirdLife will continue to work together with key organizations to develop a multi-species action plan for vultures that defines clear conservation and management actions for all threatened vultures.