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Widespread population collapse of African raptors


 An international team of researchers has found that Africa's birds of prey are facing an extinction crisis.

The report, co-led by researchers from the School of Biology at the University of St Andrews and The Peregrine Fund and published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution (Wednesday 4 January 2024), warns of declines among nearly 90% of 42 species examined, and suggests that more than two-thirds may qualify as globally threatened.

Led by Dr Phil Shaw from St Andrews and Dr Darcy Ogada of The Peregrine Fund, the study combines counts from road surveys conducted within four African regions at intervals of between 20 and 40 years and yields unprecedented insights into patterns of change in the abundance of savanna raptor species.

The study shows that large raptor species had experienced significantly steeper declines than smaller species, particularly on unprotected land, where they are more vulnerable to persecution and other human pressures. Overall, raptors had declined more than twice as rapidly outside of National Parks, Reserves and other protected areas than they had within. Worryingly, 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.

The authors of the study conclude that, unless many of the threats currently facing African raptors are addressed effectively, large, charismatic eagle and vulture species are unlikely to persist over much of the continent's unprotected land by the latter half of this century.

The study also highlights steep declines among raptors that are currently classified as being of 'least concern' in the global Red List of threatened species. They include African endemics such as Wahlberg's Eagle, the African Hawk-eagle, the Long-crested Eagle, the African Harrier-hawk and the Brown Snake-eagle, as well as the Dark Chanting-goshawk. All of these species have declined at rates suggesting that they may now be globally threatened.

Several other familiar, widespread raptor species are now scarce or absent from unprotected land. They include one of Africa's most powerful raptors – the Martial Eagle – as well as the highly distinctive Bateleur.

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

Dr Ogada added: "Africa is at a crossroads in terms of saving its magnificent birds of prey. In many areas we have watched these species nearly disappear. 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."

Professor Ian Newton OBE FRS FRSE, a world-leading ornithologist who was not involved in the study, commented: "This is an important paper that 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.

"The causes of the declines are many – from rampant habitat destruction to the 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."

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.

The late Dr Jean Marc Thiollay laid the foundation for this study in the 1970s by initiating a remarkable long-term monitoring effort in West Africa, where the average decline rate was more than twice that of other regions. The Peregrine Fund's Dr Ralph Buij, who has re-surveyed some of the original areas, noted that "the human footprint is particularly high throughout West Africa's savannas, and the near complete disappearance of many raptors outside that region's relatively small and fragmented protected area network reflects an ecological collapse that is increasingly affecting other parts of the continent. Some raptors that occur mostly in West Africa, such as the little-known Beaudouin's Snake-eagle, are vanishing into oblivion".

The study's findings highlight the importance of strengthening the protection of Africa's natural habitats and aligns with the Convention on Biological Diversity's COP15 goal of expanding conservation areas to cover 30% of land by 2030. They also demonstrate the need to restore natural habitats within unprotected areas, reduce the impact of energy infrastructure, improve legislation for species protection, and establish long-term monitoring and evaluation of the conservation status of African raptors. Crucially, there is a pressing need to try to increase public involvement in raptor conservation efforts.

To this end, the study's authors have developed the African Raptor Leadership Grant to address the immediate need for more research and conservation programmes. It supports educational and mentoring opportunities for emerging African scientists, boosting local conservation initiatives and knowledge of raptors across the continent. This initiative, which was launched in 2023, awarded its first grant to Joan Banda, a raptor research student at AP Leventis Ornithological Research Institute in Nigeria, who will be studying threats to African owls.

The article African savanna raptors show evidence of widespread population collapse and a growing dependence on protected areas is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The Peregrine Fund was founded in 1970 to restore the then critically endangered Peregrine Falcon, which was removed from the US Endangered Species List in 1999. That success encouraged the organisation to expand its focus and apply its experience and understanding to raptor conservation efforts on behalf of 140 species in 66 countries worldwide, including the Bald Eagle, California Condor, and Aplomado Falcon in the United States.

The Peregrine Fund changes the future for nature and humanity by conserving birds of prey worldwide. Whether the threat is poisoning, habitat loss, human persecution, or any other cause, the Fund's members use sound science to tackle the most pressing conservation issues head-on. They accomplish high-impact results by preventing raptor extinctions, protecting areas of high raptor conservation value, and addressing landscape-level threats impacting multiple species. As a catalyst for change, the Fund inspires people to value raptors and take action, and invests in tomorrow's conservation leaders. By working with communities around the world to protect the wildlife and habitats on which they depend, The Peregrine Fund is able to create lasting conservation results while improving people's ways of life. Support for the organisation's work comes from individual donors, corporations, foundations, and government grants.

The Fund's Africa Programme began in 1991 and supports raptor research, conservation and the capacity building of African nationals.

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