Vultures in Nigeria: The Imperative of a Better Image and Protection

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Paddy Ezeala

Humans would always pretend to have more important issues to talk about than the natural environment and its components. In some cultures, the lowest in the rung to talk about or take seriously would be vultures; a handy creature in painting the imagery of ugliness and filth. The vulture has a horrible reputation as squabbling scavengers with no sense of smell.

Some species even have a devious and duplicitous appearance that has enriched our folklores from the negative standpoint. But, if anything, man is just a strand in the web of the global ecosystem and therefore lacks the justification to judge. The truth is that the global environment is imperilled today largely owing to man’s activities and/or inactivity. Nigeria continues to lose its biological diversity because we have not matched words, policies and laws with action. Multiple distractions in the country have also not helped matters.

This article is a contribution to the International Vulture Awareness Day (IVAD) 2019 and is aimed at seizing the momentum to wake us up to our responsibilities to the environment, in which we have steadily been failing woefully. Environmental issues have been relegated to the background as a result of reasons ranging from ignorance, socio-political and economic exigencies and also sheer disinterest. IVAD is marked in the first Saturday in September each year. This event in itself is reflective of the seriousness with which the current threat to global vulture populations is regarded. The Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF) should be highly commended for leading the charge in Nigeria. This foremost environmental organisation in Nigeria has been drawing the attention of Nigerians to the dangers that are already with us as a result of our collective environmental improvidence. They have been campaigning that vultures and other avian fauna be protected in the interest of human and environmental wellbeing.

Vultures are a group of birds that are ecologically vital, but as it stands today, are facing a range of severe threats in many places where they occur. As a result, many species are under pressure while some are facing extinction. This trend should be halted as vultures have been scientifically established to be very important to the environment. All over the world, vultures clean up the environment, resist tough bacteria and viruses and prevent spread of epidemics caused by animal corpses and other organic waste. As a vital part of the ecosystem, they provide ecosystem services that contribute to human health and wellbeing in many ways including prevention of water contamination.

There are twenty-six species of vultures worldwide. Sixteen of the species are in developed countries while the remaining seven are in developing countries. All the seven species are found in Nigeria among the 940 species of birds in the country. They are Egyptian Vulture- Neophronpercnopterus (Endangered), Hooded Vulture – Necrosyrtes monachus (Endangered), White-backed vulture Gyps africanus (Endangered), White-headed vulture – Trigonocepsoccipitalis (Vulnerable), Ruppell’s Griffon -Gyps rueppellii (Endangered), Palm-nut Vulture – Gypohieraxangolensis (Least Concern) and Lappet-faced Vulture -Torgos tracheliotus. The extent of endangerment and vulnerability of these species in Nigeria is of serious concern to conservationists and well-meaning people.

“Nigerians have been most unkind to the environment”, said Dr. Muhtari Aminu-Kano, the Director-General of NCF. “The current massive onslaught on vultures across the country is fraught with untoward consequences for the environment and humans.” Aminu-Kano who is an experienced biologist and a prominent conservationist pointed out that this development goes to show that the environmental campaigns over the years in Nigeria have not yielded much fruit. “Many people are still ignorant of the biological interplay in our ecosystems and the need to protect the various threatened and endangered species in the country” he said.

Various studies carried out recently show that vultures are hunted down for spiritual and traditional medicinal purposes. From the Northern parts of the country to the South Western parts and now to the South East and adjoining states, the story is the same. Vultures are under intense pressure as the demand continues to rise.

A combination of this increasing demand and the extinction of some vulture species from some communities in Nigeria has led to importation of the species to meet the demand. It is that serious. 500 tonnes of vultures are trafficked monthly. According to recent findings, 43% of the birds are sourced domestically while as much as 48% are imported Benin Republic and as far as Sudan. The most commonly trafficked species of vultures is the Hooded vulture, Necrocyrtes Monachus which constitutes more than 90% of the birds traded.

Vultures have become evidently endangered in Nigeria for many reasons. Habitat loss has rendered many faunal species not only vulnerable but in some cases pushed to the brink of extinction. Deforestation is the biggest threat to biodiversity in Nigeria. All measures put in place for the protection and sustainable management of our forest resources have been failing. Only 4% of Nigeria’s original untouched forest cover is left. The annual rate of deforestation in Nigeria is 3.5% which approximates to 350,000 hectares of forest – out of 7.3 million hectares lost globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. 1.5 million trees are felled daily due to illegal logging in Nigeria. Against this background, therefore, it becomes unsurprising that species’ populations are depleting across the country as their natural habitats are disappearing.

Also, the use of agricultural chemicals and ground tobacco powder in poisoning vultures in Nigeria has become another serious threat to their population in Nigeria. The recent event at Eke Ihe, Awgu Market in Enugu State where members of the community woke up one morning and found their market littered with carcasses of vultures has still not been fully unravelled. The traditional ruler of the community, Igwe Godwin Ekoh, confirmed that there is currently a booming trade in vultures that is incomprehensible to people of the area. The traditional ruler said that from time immemorial vultures have been regular visitors to the market after transactions to clear organic waste or leftovers.

The consequences of the imminent extinction of vultures in Nigeria are grave. It will upset the biota with the concomitant extinction of some other species. It would lead to the spread of deadly diseases and parasites and ultimately occasion disharmony between man and nature.

In line with the foregoing, therefore, threats to our faunal species, especially vultures should be identified and tackled urgently. Wildlife laws in Nigeria should be reviewed to address current realities while being in tune with global dynamics. The laws should also be seen to be fully implemented. The issues of conservation should no longer be treated with levity as they have serious implications for human existence. The various tiers of Government must be involved in the protection of floral and faunal resources. We must learn to live in harmony with nature.

Ezeala is a communication and development specialist, South East Outreach and Communication Adviser for the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF)