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Alarming decline of African raptors linked to multiple pressures

A new study has uncovered a dire situation for Africa’s birds of prey. Nearly 90% of the 42 African raptors analyzed were found to be in a state of decline, raising fears that more than two-thirds may now be globally threatened.

The research was conducted by an international team of researchers led by Dr. Phil Shaw from the University of St. Andrews and Dr. Darcy Ogada of The Peregrine Fund.

Alarming findings

For their analysis, the experts combined road survey data across four African regions over 20 to 40 years. The study offers a detailed picture of the changing fortunes of savanna raptor species. 

The researchers found that larger African raptors have suffered more than smaller ones, particularly in unprotected areas where they face increased human threats. 

The rate of decline outside of protected areas is more than double compared to within them. The experts noted that many species experiencing the steepest declines had suffered a double jeopardy, having also become much more dependent on protected areas over the course of the study.

Multiple pressures

The researchers identified a range of pressures contributing to this crisis. Habitat conversion, intensifying human activities, and a predicted doubling of the human population in the next 35 years are adding to the strain on African raptors. 

Dr. Shaw emphasized the urgent need to expand protected areas and mitigate pressures in unprotected regions.

“Since the 1970s, extensive areas of forest and savanna have been converted into farmland, while other pressures affecting African raptors have likewise intensified,” said Dr. Shaw. 

“With the human population projected to double in the next 35 years, the need to extend Africa’s protected area network – and mitigate pressures in unprotected areas – is now greater than ever.”

Raptor conservation 

“Africa is at a crossroads in terms of saving its magnificent birds of prey. In many areas we have watched these species nearly disappear,” said Dr. Ogada.

“One of Africa’s most iconic raptors, the Secretarybird, is on the brink of extinction. There’s no single threat imperiling these birds, it’s a combination of many human-caused ones, in other words we are seeing deaths from a thousand cuts.”

Massive declines

Professor Ian Newton is a world-leading ornithologist who was not involved in the study.

“This is an important paper which draws attention to the massive declines in predatory birds which have occurred across much of Africa during recent decades. This was the continent over which, only 50 years ago, pristine populations of spectacular raptors were evident almost everywhere, bringing excitement and wonder to visitors from many parts of the world,” said Professor Newton.

“The causes of the declines are many – from rampant habitat destruction to growing use of poisons by farmers and poachers and expanding powerline networks – all ultimately due to expansions in human numbers, livestock grazing and other activities.” 

“Let us hope that more research can be done and, more importantly, that these birds can be protected over ever more areas, measures largely dependent on the education and goodwill of local people.”

Perilous existence 

The experts noted that raptors of all sizes lead an increasingly perilous existence on Africa’s unprotected land, where suitable habitat, food supplies and breeding sites have been drastically reduced, and persecution from pastoralists, ivory poachers and farmers is now widespread. 

Other significant threats include unintentional poisoning, electrocution on power poles and collision with powerlines and wind turbines, as well as killing for food and belief-based uses, said the researchers.

The African Raptor Leadership Grant

The study authors have developed the African Raptor Leadership Grant to address the immediate need for more research and conservation programs. 

The grant supports educational and mentoring opportunities for emerging African scientists, boosting local conservation initiatives and knowledge of raptors across the continent. 

The research is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution

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