Silent Savanna: Where are the Serengeti’s Wild Dogs?

African wild dog alert and lookingWhy did wild dogs vanish in Serengeti National Park? New answers are emerging. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)

It was the year when the Serengeti National Park’s music, or at least one section in its chorus-of-the-wild, died. In 1991, the twitters and whines of African wild dogs went strangely silent in Tanzania’s iconic protected area.

Scientists began tracking wild dogs, also called painted wolves, here in 1964. Over the next quarter-century, researchers watched as the wild dog population dwindled, then disappeared. Why did these canids effectively go extinct in a land where gazelles and other prey were plentiful?

Could the biologists themselves somehow be responsible?

African wild dog overlooking savanna.An African wild dog in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area surveys its domain. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)

The blame game

It’s anathema to researchers to think their actions might cause harm to an endangered species like the African wild dog. But in 1994, Roger Burrows of the University of Exeter unleashed the controversial idea that it was indeed scientists’ actions that led to the dogs’ demise.

Wild dogs became stressed, Burrows stated, when researchers immobilized and placed radio collars on them. The stress suppressed the wild dogs’ immune systems, he said, allowing diseases they already carried to kill them.

Burrows’ hypothesis rattled biologists who had long depended on radio collars to follow animals, especially endangered species. The implications went far beyond the Serengeti, say ecologists Craig Jackson of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, Eivin Roskaft of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and colleagues at the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute and Carnegie Institution for Science.

The team recently published a paper debunking Burrows’ thinking in the journal Ecology and Evolution. Serengeti wild dogs, the researchers found, weren’t the victims of science.

wild dogs runningWild dogs can roam onto Serengeti National Park lands. But they rarely do. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)

Life on the periphery

Although Serengeti National Park was, and is, without wild dogs, the dogs survived in the park’s outskirts. These outlier wild dogs have been studied since 2005. Many are outfitted with GPS collars; data show that the dogs sometimes briefly cross park boundaries. “Therefore, wild dogs could reside there,” says Roskaft. But they don’t.

There are now more than 100 wild dogs in 10 packs outside the park in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Loliondo Game Controlled Area. Between 2006 and 2016, Roskaft and colleagues report, 121 wild dogs from these locations were handled by researchers, with 45 of the dogs radio-collared.

How many of the 121 survived for a year or more afterward? Some 87.6 percent, or 106 wild dogs. Scientists’ “interventions did not evoke disease outbreaks, and the high survival rate does not support Burrows’ hypothesis,” the biologists write in their paper.

Ecologist Craig Packer, a National Geographic Explorer and director of the University of Minnesota Lion Research Center, has studied lions in the Serengeti for more than three decades. Packer, who was not involved in the study, agrees with its conclusions. “This paper,” he says, “nails the coffin on the whole debate.”

wild dogs at killWild dogs face competition from hyenas at kill sites. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)

In: Hyenas and lions. Out: Wild dogs. 

More than 25 years after wild dogs vanished from Serengeti National Park, none roam its grasslands. The answer, ecologists believe, is also the reason the dogs first faded away: hyenas and lions.

Rather than an extinction, Roskaft says, wild dogs’ disappearance was a shrinking of their range in response to increasing numbers of hyenas and lions. These carnivores often scare wild dogs away from their food.

The dogs moved out to the “far suburbs” — hillsides to the east of the park. The hills may offer safe places for wild dogs to den and raise their young.

With wild dogs out of the way, hyena and lion populations boomed. Any wild dogs brave enough to stay were left with slim pickings.

The evidence is clear, says Roskaft. “Increasing competition from hyenas and lions likely led to the downfall of the Serengeti National Park wild dog population.”

Packer and colleagues came to a similar conclusion. Between 1966 and 1998, the park’s lion population nearly tripled, they found, and wild dogs declined. Wild dogs once occupied park areas with low numbers of lions, which the dogs abandoned as lions “saturated” the region.

Serengeti prey animalsSerengeti National Park offers wild dogs – and other predators – plenty of prey. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)

A seesawing Serengeti

The picture was once very different. In the 1960s, Serengeti National Park was recovering from the effects of rinderpest, a disease of cattle that infected ungulates such as wildebeest and buffaloes – lions’ prey. The park’s lion population declined, and its wild dogs increased.

As rinderpest was brought under control and ungulates returned, lions followed. Soon wild dogs were edged out.

“A large number of wildebeest and lions, however, is a more ‘natural’ state for the Serengeti than the conditions that once allowed wild dogs to occupy its plains,” says Packer.

The big puzzle, he says, “is why wild dogs are able to co-exist with lions in places like the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania and Okavango Delta in Botswana. We suspect there’s something about the habitat that provides the dogs with ‘safe spaces.’”

With more answers needed, Roskaft is happy to put an end to the conjectures about radio collars. “Tools that help us understand endangered wild dogs and other species are important to protecting these animals,” he says, “especially in a world where carnivores are struggling in the face of a growing human population.”

No wild dog twitters and whines wend across Serengeti National Park. But, says Packer, “effective conservation requires multiple locations since species cannot always co-exist in all circumstances.”

To wild dogs traversing the Serengeti: at least for now, your melody is perhaps better sung in the savanna next door.

wild dog lookingA wild dog in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area gazes across the savanna. (Photograph: Per Harald Olsen)


Africa, African wild dogs, conservation, Ecology, endangered species, environment, mammals, science, Serengeti, Tanzania

Saving Africa’s most threatened primate group from extinction

By Drew T. Cronin, Joshua Linder, Nelson Ting and Ekwoge Abwe – Coordinators of the Red Colobus Conservation Action Plan

Red colobus monkeys (Piliocolobus spp.) are a group of leaf-eating monkeys unique to the forests of sub-Saharan Africa, ranging from Senegal on the Atlantic coast to the island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean. Despite their broad range, red colobus monkeys have the regrettable distinction of being the most threatened group of primates in Africa. Experts are unclear about exactly how many species of red colobus there are, but we know there are at least 18 distinct forms, differing from one another in aspects of coat color and design, facial patterns, behavior, and vocalizations. Every form of red colobus monkey, unfortunately, is threatened with extinction.

Current distribution of the various red colobus taxa. (Image: © Red Colobus Conservation Action Plan)

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species considers more than half of red colobus forms Endangered or Critically Endangered. Five red colobus taxa–Niger Delta Red Colobus (P. epieni), Pennant’s Red Colobus (P. pennanti), Preuss’s Red Colobus (P. preussi), Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus (P. waldroni), and Tana River Red Colobus (P. rufomitratus) appear on the list of the World’s Top 25 Most Endangered Primates. Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus may have been hunted to extinction already, and GWC’s Search for Lost Species program considers it one of the world’s “most wanted” lost species. Despite the conservation status of red colobus, researchers have studied only a few populations in detail and the general public is largely unaware of these monkeys. General awareness of red colobus and their plight is further hindered by the lack of any captive populations in zoos around the world–animal husbandry experts have not been able to successfully care for them in captivity. Red colobus monkeys are therefore facing an extinction crisis requiring urgent, targeted, and coordinated conservation action.

Illustration of the 18 red colobus forms. (Illustration: © Stephen Nash)

The primary threats to red colobus are commercial and subsistence hunting, disease, and habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation resulting from numerous factors (i.e., logging, mining, charcoal production, infrastructure development, and conversion of forest to farms and agriculture plantations). Unfortunately, red colobus are more susceptible to hunting and habitat degradation than other monkeys and are usually one of the first species to disappear in disturbed habitats. Like a canary in a coal mine, loss of red colobus monkeys can be thought of as the first indicators of the decline of a healthy ecosystem.

A concerted and coordinated range-wide conservation effort is urgently required to conserve and recover all red colobus forms. In response to this critical need, the IUCN Primate Specialist Group, in collaboration with the African Primatological Society, is spearheading the first comprehensive Red Colobus Conservation Action Plan (ReCAP). Experts on all red colobus forms and their range countries are contributing to this action plan to unite and mobilize local and international conservation groups, governments, academic institutions, zoos, and other interested partners to prevent the further decline and loss of red colobus populations.

We expect to launch the ReCAP and an associated program of conservation work at the International Primatological Society (IPS) Congress in Nairobi, Kenya 2018. It is important to note, however, that we are not just looking to write an action plan, but to catalyze coordinated range-wide conservation action for red colobus monkeys and their habitats. The overarching goals of the ReCAP are to: enhance and expand site-based conservation for all forms of red colobus monkey; elevate red colobus monkeys to flagship status across their range and beyond; develop cross-cutting, continent-wide initiatives to link and support site-based activities; and, build capacity and create opportunities through training and mentoring programs.

This month, which included Endangered Species Day on May 18 and the International Day for Biological Diversity of May 22, we highlight the top five most threatened red colobus species, which are all Critically Endangered. We believe that through both site-based projects that ensure protection through enforcement, education, and ecological monitoring, and regional initiatives that leverage common solutions to achieve efficiencies of scale and range-wide adaptive management, no red colobus monkey needs go extinct.

Top 5 Most Threatened Red Colobus Taxa

Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus (P. waldroni) (Illustration: © Stephen Nash)

Miss Waldron’s Red Colobus (Piliocolobus waldroni): Critically Endangered

Once found throughout southeastern Cote d’Ivoire and southwestern Ghana, extensive hunting and habitat loss have resulted in steep declines in its population. They have not been observed in the wild since 1978, despite extensive surveys. Experts believe that it may be extinct, but rumors of their existence persist from the deep interior of a single, remote, almost impenetrable swamp forest.

Niger Delta Red Colobus (P. epieni) (Photo: © Noel Rowe/

Niger Delta Red Colobus (Piliocolobus epieni): Critically Endangered

The most recently discovered red colobus species is already one of the most endangered. First described in the 1990s, the Niger Delta Red Colobus is found only in Nigeria, restricted to the swamp forests of the Niger Delta in an area of approximately 78 km squared. Its habitat has been severely degraded by logging, and hunting has increased due to the influx of oil workers to the region. With only about 200 individuals remaining, it is thought that it may go extinct within the next five years without effective conservation actions.

Tana River Red Colobus (P. rufomitratus) (Photo: © Stanislaus Kivai)

Tana River Red Colobus (Piliocolobus rufomitratus): Critically Endangered

This species is found only in small forest fragments along a 60-km stretch of river, in a total area of less than 13 km squared. Only around 1,000 individuals remain, but it is in continual decline due to rapid loss and fragmentation of its habitat. The endangered Tana River Mangabey is also endemic and restricted to the same forest as the Tana River Red Colobus.

Pennant’s Red Colobus (P. pennantii) in the Gran Caldera de Luba, Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea. (Photo: © Ian Nichols | Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program)

Pennant’s Red Colobus (Piliocolobus pennantii): Critically Endangered

Biologists believe that Pennant’s Red Colobus, endemic to the small island of Bioko in Equatorial Guinea, were once found throughout all of Bioko’s lowland forests. Heavy hunting pressure and increasing infrastructure development, however, have reduced its range to only the most remote, mountainous corner of the island, in an area of about 150 km squared. Fewer than an estimated 1,200 individuals remain, a decline of more than 80 percent over the last 30 years due primarily to the proliferation of the commercial bushmeat trade. The critically endangered Bioko Black Colobus (Colobus satanas satanas) and endangered Bioko Drill (Mandrillus leucophaeus poensis) are also endemic, along with six other endangered primate taxa, and found in the same forest as the Pennant’s Red Colobus. As such, this species is a notable flagship for the primate fauna of Bioko Island.

Preuss’s red colobus (P. preussi) in Korup National Park, Cameroon. (Photo: © Alexandra Hofner)

Preuss’s Red Colobus (Piliocolobus preussi): Critically Endangered

Restricted mostly to two separate forests in western Cameroon, this species requires urgent support. Surrounded by some of the densest human populations in Africa, it is in sharp decline due to intense, commercialized bushmeat hunting and deforestation caused by expansion of small- and large-scale agriculture and infrastructure projects.

This post was co-authored by the coordinators of the Red Colobus Conservation Action Plan: Drew T. Cronin, Joshua Linder, Nelson Ting, and Ekwoge Abwe. For more info on the Red Colobus Conservation Action Plan, check out our website or follow us on Twitter at @RedColobusAP.

(Top photo: © Raffaele Merler)

Originally posted 2018-05-29 15:00:19.

Going Quietly into the Night: The Unseen Plight of Africa’s Giraffes

Northern giraffes in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda.Giraffes, like these northern giraffes in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, are facing a conservation crisis. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)

The steep ravine of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania lies behind me. Ahead are the plains of the Serengeti, grasses reaching toward the far horizon in a wavering line that finally bends into the curvature of the Earth. It is June, and the Serengeti’s “long rains” have just ended. The air is washed clean by the storms of March, April and May. In this briefest of interludes before the dry season, the land is verdant. Grasses still sprout, not yet turned sere and golden.

I think of age-old migrations and thundering hooves across miles of savanna. What I don’t think of is right before my as-yet-unseeing eyes: giraffes, peacefully browsing flat-topped trees, their legs and necks nearly hidden in a copse of acacias.

With all our concern for iconic African wildlife species – lions, cheetahs, rhinos – somehow we’ve forgotten the quietly ambling giraffes.

“While giraffes are commonly seen on safaris and in zoos, many people – including conservationists – are unaware that these majestic animals are undergoing a silent extinction,” says biologist Julian Fennessy, director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, based in Namibia. “With a decline of almost 40 percent in the last three decades, the world’s tallest animal is under severe pressure in many of its core ranges across East, Central and West Africa.”

Human population growth poses the greatest risk to giraffes, says Fennessy. “Habitat loss and expanding agriculture and mining, illegal hunting, and increasing human-wildlife conflict are pushing giraffes toward extinction.”

Biologists report a steep decline in the overall giraffe population, from some 163,452 giraffes in 1985 to 97,562 in 2015. As a result, giraffes have moved from species of “Least Concern” to “Vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

But is that one giraffe species…or several?

Fennessy and other scientists argue in a paper recently published on bioRxiv that “mounting evidence of four giraffe species proposes a re-evaluation of the current IUCN giraffe taxonomy to raise the classification to a [yet] higher level of threat, and in turn increase conservation actions.”

Graphic showing four giraffe species.Scientists have discovered that there are likely four giraffe species. (Graphic: Giraffe Conservation Foundation)

The four giraffes

Scientists had long recognized one giraffe species and nine subspecies. Then ecologists began an analysis of giraffe relationships. Giraffes, it turns out, are not one species, but indeed four. “The genetic differences among giraffes are at least as great as those between polar bears and brown bears,” says Fennessy.

He and geneticist Axel Janke of Goethe University in Germany led the research team. The unexpected findings highlight the need for in-depth studies of and greater conservation efforts for the four genetically isolated species, the biologists say.

“We were surprised at the results because coat patterns and other visible differences among giraffes are somewhat limited,” says Janke. “Giraffes are also assumed to have similar ecological requirements across their range, but no one really knows because they’ve been largely overlooked by science.”

Giraffe-tracking in Africa.Wildlife biologists tracked and collected samples from nearly 200 giraffes across Africa. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)

The researchers looked at DNA evidence from skin biopsies of 190 giraffes. “The extensive sampling included populations of all nine previously recognized giraffe subspecies,” says Fennessy.

The analysis shows that the four overall groups of giraffes don’t mate with each other in the wild. As a result, the scientists believe, giraffes should be recognized as four distinct species: northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis); southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa); reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata); and Masai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi).

Why did giraffes separate into different species? Rivers, mountains and other geographic barriers may have kept populations apart long enough for new species to evolve, Fennessy says.

All giraffes are quintessential African savanna animals. That savanna, however, is vanishing. It once covered an area one and one-half times as large as the lower 48 U.S. states. Along with the grasslands, giraffes are disappearing.

Northern giraffes, for example, number fewer than 5,000 in the wild. “That makes them some of the most endangered large mammals in the world,” says Fennessy. “Giraffes have become islands in an ever-shrinking savanna.”

On the good news side, according to biologist Sam Ferreira of South African National Parks, southern giraffes are holding their own in South Africa’s national parks. Over the past five years, southern giraffe population increases have ranged from 0.1 percent in Marakele National Park to 17.9 percent in Mapungubwe National Park.

A reticulated giraffe in Kenya.Fewer than 8,700 reticulated giraffes still exist in Africa; this one is in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)

Epicenter of giraffe species

Twiga, kanyiet, tiga. Lenywa, ndwiya, iment. In the dialects of Kenya, all are words for giraffe.

“Kenya is likely the epicenter of giraffe speciation [the formation of new species],” says Fennessy. “No other country has such a diversity of giraffes.”

The animals meander through open grasslands, woodlands and scrublands. There they chew on acacias and other trees. The browsing promotes new growth, according to GCF researchers, ultimately making leaves easier to find.

Giraffes once ranged far afield in their search for food and mates. Now fragmented habitat is hampering their walkabouts. “The lack of long-distance movement limits access to suitable forage and to natural gene flow between populations,” Fennessy says.

Angolan giraffes, northwestern Namibia.Across Africa, giraffes like these in northwestern Namibia are being crowded out by humans. (Photograph: Julian Fennessy)

Two giraffe species and one subspecies live in Kenya: the reticulated giraffe, which roams northern and eastern Kenya; the Masai giraffe, which inhabits the savanna and woodlands of southern Kenya; and the Nubian giraffe (formerly Rothschild’s giraffe), a subspecies of northern giraffe that’s reduced to small, scattered populations in western and central Kenya.

The Masai is Kenya’s most abundant giraffe, with some 12,000 animals, followed by the reticulated giraffe, with no more than 8,700 individuals. The Nubian giraffe numbers a paltry 400.

In the last two decades, Masai giraffes have declined by 50 percent and reticulated giraffes by some 70 percent. Nubian giraffe numbers have been going down for at least 50 years, mostly due to civil unrest in countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia, Fennessy says. “The turmoil has led to loss of giraffe habitat as people are displaced, then move into areas formerly occupied by giraffes.”

Nubian giraffes are being reintroduced in their native range, however. From east to west in Kenya, for example, small numbers are now found in Mwea National Reserve, Giraffe Centre, Kigio Wildlife Conservancy, Soysambu Conservancy and Lake Nakuru National Park, Nasolot National Reserve, Mt. Elgon National Park, Ruma National Park and Lake Baringo National Park.

Safari-goers visiting these and other protected areas can help, says Fennessy. “They can search for giraffes across the continent and let us know what they’re seeing. Many people, including guides, don’t realize that giraffes aren’t the same animals throughout Africa. When you look at the four species of giraffes alongside each other, they do in fact have different features, such as color, pattern and size.” The GCF website,, has detailed information.

It’s high time, Fennessy says, “to stick our necks out for giraffes.”

The Serengeti without giraffes.The sun goes down on Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. Missing in this picture are its giraffes. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)

Originally posted 2018-07-30 08:04:15.

The Best of the Top 25: Part 2

This week we continue our flash back on some of the best Top 25 photographs of the last year. Of the thousands of pictures submitted and the hundreds selected for the Top 25 blogs, these are considered the best of the best! Thank you to all the photographers who have submitted pictures over the last year. Your pictures allows us to a tell a story about the wonderful birdlife that exists on our planet. Keep up the good work!

To recap even more of our Top 25 images you can visit our youtube channel. You can find even more bird photography highlights on our Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages!

This beautiful Anna’s Hummingbird can be found on the west coast of North America (Sutapa Karmakar)The pet trade is one of the factors driving Bali Mynas to extinction (Arun Samak)The Black-throated Trogon can be found in the humid forests of South America. This one was photographed in Panama by Owen DeutschIn winter Brown-headed Gulls can be found on the coastlines of India and south-east Asia. Here they associate with fishing vessels, eating any scraps from the ship (Mukesh Mishra)The Brown-hooded Kingfisher of southern Africa rarely fishes, in fact they eat mainly insects (Rodnick Clifton Biljon)A Handsome Burchell’s Starling photographed in Botswana by Owen DeutschThe Collared Kingfisher is widespread across south-east Asia. Taxonomists have divided the species into 50 different sub-species! Although the species as a whole is widespread some of the sub-species have very small populations which are threatened (Kishore Debnath)The Common Kingfisher eats mainly fish and insects. Several times a day they will regurgitate a pellet with the indigestible remains of their prey (Kuntal Das)The Daurain Redstart was previously known to only breed in China, Mongolia and Russia. Recently a new breeding population was discovered in Japan (Vinayak Joshi)The Demoiselle Crane breeds aross central Eurasia. Those from the west of the breeding range then migrate to Africa for the winter and the others migrate to India (Anirban Roychowdhury)An endangered Egyptian Vulture photographed in Haryana, India by Vishal MonakarThe Eurasian Jay is a woodland species, they collect acorns and bury them to eat later. However they store far more than they need and many of them will start to grow into oak trees (Asim Haldar)The breeding success of European Bee-eaters is strongly linked to weather conditions. A study in Germany found breeding success to be twice as good in warm, dry years, compared to wet and cold years (Carlo Galliani)This European Starling is in fresh plumage, once the feathers start the wear, the pale spots become less visible (Donald Bauman)Male Great Bustards are known to eat poisonous blister beetles in the mating season. These contain cantharidin, a known aphrodisiac. It is suspected that this helps makes the males more willing to court females (Lennart Hessel)A yellow morph of the Green-winged Pytilia photographed in Kimberley, South Africa. Normally the face would be red in this species (Brian Culver)Between 1985 and 2004 the population of Grey Crowned-cranes halved, they are now considered endangered (Wasif Yaqeen)A striking portrait of an Indian Eagle-owl (Prasad Sonawane)The Northern Long-eared Owl has excellent hearing, it is thought that they locate their prey mainly from sound (Zafer Tekin)A male Calliope Hummingbird showing his colourful display feathers (Jola Charlton)A Mountain Bulbul photographed in the Himalayas by Vishal MonakarA pair of Atlantic Puffins on Skomer Island, Wales (Suranjan Mukherjee)Even thought Steppe Eagles are endangered, they are still one of the most common large eagles in the world (Tauseef Zafer)Violet-backed Starlings are important dispersers of mistletoes. They eat the fruit and then regurgitate the seed which then grows into a new plant (Shantharam Holla)The White-throated Bee-eater breeds along the edges of the Saharan desert, before wintering in central Africa (Caroline Muchekehu)

Our mission is to build a global community around the freedom and beauty of birds in the wild as ambassadors for the natural ecosystems that they depend upon. They are the music, decoration, and character of every terrestrial habitat on the planet and have been around since the dinosaurs. They are the witnesses and ambassadors of the awesome power of nature. The wide availability of good, cheap optics has opened their world to us for the last few decades. Amazing, affordable DSLR cameras with long lenses are delivering brilliant digital bird imagery to online communities.

We are in a day-and-age during which more bird species are threatened with extinction than ever before. The Wild Birds! Revolution aims to publish the “Top 25 Wild Bird Photographs of the Week” to 1 million people every week by the end of the year. That is a revolution that will change the world! Join thousands of other weekend naturalists, photographers, birders, experts, hikers, nature-lovers, guides, scientists, conservationists and artists that share the thousands of wild bird photographs submitted to the Wild Bird Trust website and Facebook page. Thousands of wild bird enthusiasts are going out every day to photograph our planet’s beautiful birdlife. Pick up your camera, fill your bird feeder, open your heart, and join the Wild Birds! Revolution!!

Edited by Christie Craig, Campaign Manager

The Best of the Top 25: Part 1

Originally posted 2018-05-17 16:44:59.

Endangered Vultures Critical to Disease Control in Africa

Dr. Corinne Kendall giving a presentation on vultures in Tanzania.

National Geographic Society grantee Corinne Kendall studied vulture biology and conservation at Princeton and now works for North Carolina Zoo putting her knowledge to work in on-the-ground (and in-the-sky) research in Tanzania. She’s also passionate about education, managing a teacher training program in Uganda and teaching at zoos and universities across the United States. We asked her about her recent findings about these critically endangered birds.

Why are vultures so important to the overall health for life in Africa?

Vultures play a critical role in disease control and waste removal. They are actually one of the most important scavengers in Africa and are believed to consume even more carrion than mammalian scavengers like hyenas. Vultures also eat rapidly and feed in large groups which allows them to consume carrion quickly. This reduces the risk of disease spread from flies or bacteria. Vultures are resistant to many diseases so they don’t contract or spread diseases like tuberculosis or brucellosis even if the animals they are consuming died from those causes.

Vultures have the advantage of incredibly efficient soaring flight which allows them to travel large distances in short amounts of time. White-backed vultures are also highly social. These two characteristics make vultures uniquely capable of responding to fluxes in food availability created when a large animal dies or during an epidemic. As a result they can be particularly important for reducing disease spread during an outbreak.

What can vultures teach us about the spread of anthrax and other animal mortalities?

Vultures respond to disease outbreaks quickly and reduce the spread by consuming carrion without contracting the disease. In Tanzania, Wildlife Conservation Society biologists and I have satellite-tagged White-backed vultures and recently had a unique opportunity to understand how anthrax spreads during an outbreak using our tagged vultures. Because birds stop for extended periods when feeding at a carcass, we were able to identify locations of animals that died of anthrax during a recent epidemic in Ruaha National Park. Using our tagged birds we can assess when and where the outbreak started, how it spread, and when it ended. In collaboration with Tanzanian National Parks, we were even able to identify contaminated carcasses so that rangers could destroy some carcasses and help to reduce the spread of anthrax.

Vultures might be able to help us understand other animal mortalities as well. For instance, there is concern about a giraffe skin disease which has become very common in Ruaha National Park.

It is not known if this disease affects mortality rates in giraffe. Using vultures, we may be able to find giraffe carcasses more rapidly and assess how severe the skin disease was in the deceased individual.

Why are African vultures declining?

African vulture populations have declined precipitously in the last three decades and many species are now considered endangered or critically endangered. Poisoning is the primary cause of decline. Poisoning occurs when people put pesticides onto livestock carcasses when cows or other domestic animals are killed by lions and hyenas. These retaliatory killings are intended to kill the carnivores, but vultures are the more common victims of poisoning. In some cases, poachers have also begun poisoning vultures either for their body parts or because they want to reduce vulture numbers so that the birds don’t alert rangers to elephant carcasses, from individuals that have been recently poached.


What can be done to save Africa’s vultures?

Wildlife Conservation Society and North Carolina Zoo are working closely with Tanzanian National Parks to ensure a safe future for vultures in Tanzania. We have conducted ranger trainings on how to respond to poisoning events, such as ways to collect evidence, how to care for sick birds, and how to properly dispose of the poisoned carcass. In addition, in September 2017 we held Tanzania’s first ever Vulture Awareness Day. This event attracted hundreds of people and media attention in Tanzania and communities were amazed to learn about the important role that vultures play in the environment and what they can do to save them. It really helped raise the profile of these sometimes overlooked birds.

Is there hope for African vultures?

The threats to African vultures are great and poisoning can kill a large number of birds very quickly. However, there is hope for African vultures. Recent studies from Wildlife Conservation Society and North Carolina Zoo in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania suggest that this park may be a critical stronghold for African vultures. Populations appear to be stable and poisoning appears to be infrequent in this area. We are optimistic that vulture populations in southern Tanzania can flourish even though declines are continuing elsewhere.

For the white-backed vulture and other wildlife, time is running out. Join National Geographic explorers, like Corinne Kendall, as they work to protect wildlife, preserve the last wild places on the planet, and push the boundaries of discovery. Click here to donate.

Originally posted 2018-02-02 07:04:46.


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