By Rebecca Bloomfield
Lilongwe Wildlife Trust is currently conducting a pilot Vulture Research Project thanks to funding from African Bird Club. We are investigating the vulture population in Nyika National Park, one of the last protected areas home to vulture species in Malawi. Located in northern Malawi, the park has a healthy carnivore population of leopard and hyena, and a large number of prey species such as antelope and zebra.
However, vultures rarely kill their own food. They play an important role in nature by cleaning up after predators, aiding in keeping ecosystems healthy by scavenging on already dead animals. Without vultures, rotting carcasses might last longer. This would boost insect populations and increase the spreading of diseases, such as rabies and tuberculosis, to people and other animals (as was the case in India where rabies in feral dogs rose).
Sadly, vulture populations all over the world are in rapid decline. Of the eleven species found in Africa, one has already been lost to extinction and seven others are listed as Critically Endangered or Endangered. One of the reasons for this is the use of poison, which is applied to carcasses to target lions and other predators that may otherwise attack livestock or used to exterminate vermin. Vultures scavenging contaminated dead animals are killed when they eat the poisoned meat. A lack of food sources is another reason for the vulture’s decline. In Malawi, the over-poaching of both prey and predator populations have led to the disappearance of vultures in most other protected areas and National Parks.
Our pilot Vulture Research Project aims to assess the population density of five vulture species in Nyika. To do this, we conduct transects and carcass surveys. Below are the first camera trap images of vultures on a zebra carcass from our pilot study. In the photo are White-backed vultures (Gyps africanus), IUCN listed as Critically Endangered, and Lappet-faced vultures (Torgos tracheliotus), IUCN listed as Endangered.
Photo credit: James Stranks