A comprehensive new study published this week in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution has found that African raptors, including iconic birds of prey like vultures, eagles, and hawks, are experiencing alarming population declines across the continent. Researchers warn that if trends continue, multiple species could face extinction in our lifetimes.
Extinction Threat For 90% of Species
The study analyzed over 40 years of data on the populations of 104 raptor species that together represent around three quarters of all African raptors. The results paint a dire picture, with 90% of the assessed species showing severe long-term population declines.
Raptors play vital ecological roles, helping to dispose of carrion and control populations of small mammals and insects. Their disappearance would have cascading impacts on ecosystems. Furthermore, the declining state of raptor populations signals wider environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
“The situation is worrying—the rate of decline revealed by our study means that we could lose some African raptor species in our lifetime if urgent conservation interventions are not implemented,” said lead researcher Dr. Rhys Green from the University of Cambridge and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Drivers of Decline
The researchers identified the primary drivers fuelling raptor declines:
- Habitat loss due to expansion of agriculture and infrastructure
- Poisoning, often linked to pest control on farms where raptors are unintentionally poisoned after eating poisoned rodents
- Unsustainable levels of hunting and trapping for trade, food, traditional medicine, and other purposes
“The declines are happening simultaneously across species and bio-geographic areas, and irrespective of habitat requirements or population status, pointing to large-scale threats shared across species,” said Green. “This implies that solutions also need to be implemented across regions and at landscape scales to reverse ongoing declines.”
|Average Population Trend
Table showing average population trends for different groups of African raptor species over 30+ years. All groups show severe declines.
Urgent Conservation Action Needed
To arrest the declines, the authors call for coordinated conservation action across Africa focused on the key pressures impacting raptors. This includes investing in more wildlife-friendly approaches to agriculture that maintain natural habitat; banning highly toxic agrochemicals; outlawing indiscriminate poisons used in pest control; and closing supply chains that enable the unsustainable trade of raptors.
“The odds are stacked against African raptors, with numerous threats facing them across huge areas. But if conservation partners, governments, industry and donors commit to swiftly tackling these threats head-on by implementing decisive conservation action at scale, we can help these species cling on,” said Green.
Glimmers of Hope Amidst the Gloom
While almost all assessed species are declining, the study provides some glimmers of hope. A small number of species, including certain types of eagles, buzzards and harriers, have remained stable or are recovering. These successes likely reflect targeted conservation interventions and recovery from past persecution. They demonstrate that with sufficient action and funding, declines can be stemmed and reversed.
Furthermore, several little-known species that have tiny and fragmented distributions, such as Rüppell’s Vulture and Brown Snake-Eagle, have so far escaped the severe declines witnessed across most of their relatives. Quickly protecting these species could save them from regional extinction.
“Where governments, NGOs and communities have come together, put conservation measures in place for raptors and tracked how they are faring, we do see recovery. This means it’s not too late to act,” concluded Dr. Green. “We now urge the same effort at a continental scale to halt further losses, and help these iconic species tackle environmental change.”
African raptors still face an uncertain future. Most will likely continue declining without major conservation interventions. However some species could recover if significant efforts are made across Africa to tackle habitat loss, hunting, and poisoning. A few – such as critically endangered Hooded Vultures – may need captive breeding and reintroduction to boost their tiny remaining populations.
Much rests on whether African governments and the global conservation community are able to commit sufficient funding and put in place enforceable policy measures. Without coordinated large-scale action, we will continue to lose these magnificent birds from Africa’s skies. Their value extends far beyond nature-lovers – these ecosystem guardians also support human health, food security and sustainable development across the continent. If lost, they would be sorely missed.
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