Nearly 1,000 vultures died in Guinea-Bissau from a possible poisoning, according to a Vulture Conservation Foundation release. The critically endangered hooded vulture was hit especially hard, the group said.
Many vulture species in Africa are already on the brink of extinction due to intentional kills by poachers or from eating poisoned carrion. Though the exact cause of the latest deaths is still under investigation, authorities in the country found the vultures “bubbling from their beaks” and seeming to “search for water,” the VCF reports. The group is calling the event a “conservation disaster.”
“This is, without any doubt, the worst case of vulture mortality in recent history that we know of,” José Tavares, director of the VCF, told Gizmodo.
The VCF first reported last month that 200 vultures had died in the Bafatá province of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. That number rose to 648 on February 28 and has now hit nearly 1,000, according to the VCF, with most of the dead birds identified as the critically endangered hooded vulture.
Conservationists found dead vultures around the country, in groups on the outskirts of towns, mostly clustered around the towns of Bafatá and Gabú but more widely spread than typical poisoning events. Authorities in the country have collected and incinerated many of the birds to prevent further deaths of scavenging species, which is exactly what they were supposed to do, Tavares pointed out. He commended their work, especially given the country’s political instability; this week, its interim president Cipriano Cassama resigned just two days after he was sworn in, citing death threats, unrest, and travel restrictions.
Poisoning is a real possibility—in other African countries, garbage dumps use strychnine to poison feral dogs, which unintentionally kills the vultures. When authorities poison wild animals to control populations or farmers use certain drugs on their livestock, the vultures eat the carcasses and then die. Three vulture species saw a decline of 97 percent to 99.9 percent in India from 1992 to 2007 due to the use of diclofenac in cattle, for example. Elephant and rhino poachers sometimes poison vultures attracted to their illegal kills (the presence of vultures could alert others to the poaching).
But authorities in Guinea-Bissau have only been able to take one sample and do not have the means to test it at the moment, Tavares said. Both VCF and the IUCN’s Vulture Specialist Group have written to the country with advice for next steps, which would include testing the sample in neighboring Senegal and collecting more samples if possible.
Though the hooded vulture ranges across Africa and has a population of at most 200,000, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature considers them critically endangered, citing an estimated 83 percent decline in the past 53 years. West African countries like Guinea-Bissau are a stronghold of this species. Fourteen of the world’s 23 vulture species are endangered.
Though occasionally reviled, vultures provide important ecosystem services as “nature’s cleanup crew,” Tavares said. Other conservationists worry that vulture declines could lead to the further spread of animal-borne diseases like rabies to humans. Said Tavares: “It would be a problem if they all disappeared.”