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The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals aim to improve livelihoods and maintain functioning ecosystems, and include the provision of electricity and the prevention of desertification. We show that the pursuit of those two goals can lead to developments that put critical ecosystem functions at risk. Vultures are scavengers that provide sanitary ecosystem services, but their populations across Africa are declining due to poisoning, electrocution, and collision with power infrastructure. The extent to which the pursuit of sustainable development threatens vultures in Africa is unclear. We surveyed 227 km of powerlines in Ethiopia, which revealed bird mortality (0.15 vulture carcasses / km) at power infrastructure constructed under a National Electrification Programme to provide universal electricity access by 2025. We also interviewed 190 local pastoralists in 10 areas about livelihood challenges, which revealed that the bush Prosopis juliflora, which was originally introduced to prevent desertification but then invaded north-eastern Ethiopia, increased livestock predation and motivated the use of poison to control predators. Actions to increase universal access to electricity and to reduce desertification therefore have undesired side-effects that increase vulture mortality through electrocution and poisoning. To avoid negatively affecting local vulture populations and the services they provide, we urge governments to use infrastructure designs that minimise the risk of electrocution and assist pastoralists to protect their livestock and reduce the risk of poisoning to vultures and other wildlife.
The Eurasian Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus is a large Palearctic, Indohimalayan and Afrotropical Old-World vulture. The species’ range is vast, encompassing territories from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas. We reviewed and analysed a long-term data set for Griffon Vulture in the Balkans to estimate the change in its population size and range between 1980 and 2019. After a large historical decline, the Griffon Vulture population slightly increased in the last 39 years (λ = 1.02) and reached 445–565 pairs in 2019. We recorded a gradual increase of Griffon Vulture subpopulations in Serbia (λ = 1.08 ± 0.003), Bulgaria (λ = 1.08 ± 0.003) and Croatia (λ = 1.05 ± 0.005) and steep to a moderate decline of the species subpopulations in Greece (λ = 0.88 ± 0.005) and North Macedonia (λ = 0.94 ± 0.01). However, species range contracted to half of its former range in the same period. It occurred in 42 UTM squares in the 1980–1990 period and only 20 UTM squares between 2011 and 2019 and concentrated into three source subpopulations in Bulgaria, Serbia, and Croatia. Following reintroductions of the Griffon Vulture in Bulgaria, new colonies were formed at three novel localities after 2010. Regular movements of individuals between the different subpopulations exist nowadays. Therefore, preservation of both current and former core areas used for breeding and roosting is essential for species conservation in the region. However, the Griffon Vulture still faces severe threats and risk of local extinction. Various hazards such as poisoning, collision with energy infrastructure, disturbance and habitat alteration are depleting the status of the Balkan population and its full recovery. Further studies should analyse age-specific survival and mortality, recruitment, genetic relatedness, spatial use to inform the viability of this population in the future.
Saudi Arabia is the fastest growing electricity consumer in the Middle East, with a rapidly expanding network of powerlines. Bird mortality through electrocution and collision has been recorded in the country, but so far there is little information as to how much the electricity infrastructure affects globally threatened raptor populations that migrate to Saudi Arabia. In 2019, the world’s largest wintering congregation of Steppe Eagles Aquila nipalensis was discovered near a rubbish dump in central Saudi Arabia. We evaluated whether powerlines in the vicinity of this, and another congregation site, caused mortality of large birds. In November 2019, we surveyed powerlines within 6 km of two focal rubbish dumps at Al Qunfudhah (12.4 km) and Ushaiqer (2 km). We found 52 carcasses of five species, of which 85% were Steppe Eagles. Based on the age of these carcasses, we coarsely extrapolate that 14.4 km of powerlines near these two congregation sites may kill 94–240 Steppe Eagles per winter, representing up to 0.3% of their global population. We call for the urgent safeguarding of powerlines that cause mortality near known Steppe Eagle congregation sites, and the adoption and implementation of regulations that ensure that future infrastructure is constructed with designs that are safe for birds.
A prominent threat to European vultures has been sanitary regulations that banned the disposal of livestock carcasses. Changes in food abundance following these regulations have been associated with changes in vulture behaviour and demographic parameters, but to what extent diet changes are responsible for population declines is poorly understood. The Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus is the smallest and most threatened European vulture species and has an opportunistic and diverse diet. In Eastern Europe, the Egyptian Vulture population is declining more rapidly than elsewhere but there is little information on diet composition and the relationship between diet and demographic parameters to inform conservation management. We examined whether Egyptian Vulture population declines in Bulgaria and Greece may have been associated with diet changes that affected breeding productivity by monitoring breeding success and collecting diet remains from 143 Egyptian Vulture breeding attempts between 2006 and 2013. We found no relationship between diet diversity or composition and productivity. However, there was a significant relationship between occupancy rate of territories and diet diversity, indicating that occupancy rate decreased with a very diverse or a very narrow diet and a higher proportion of wild animals or a lower proportion of livestock in the diet. There was no temporal change in diet diversity in Bulgaria after admission to the EU in 2007. We conclude that it is unlikely that diet limitations on reproductive output are a critical threat to Egyptian Vultures on the Balkan Peninsula. The relationship between diet diversity and territory occupancy rate may indicate that adult birds with a very narrow or a very broad diet may be more susceptible to consuming poisoned carcasses, and more information on the effect of diet availability on adult and juvenile survival would be useful to inform and improve conservation management actions.
The Egyptian Vulture has been classified as ‘Endangered’ due to a rapid population decline in India and long term declines in Europe and Africa. Although the species has been reported to be declining in Eastern Europe, no quantitative assessment of the magnitude or the causes for population declines are available. We used monitoring data from the Balkan Peninsula to estimate changes in population size and extent of occurrence of Egyptian Vultures between 1980 and 2013. We quantified population trends in three countries (Bulgaria, Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic [FYR] of Macedonia) to assess whether population declines are similar within the Balkan range states. We found a rapid and consistent decline of the Egyptian Vulture population that was largely similar among the three countries (λ = 0.940 in FYR of Macedonia, 0.951 in Bulgaria, 0.920 in Greece). As a consequence of population declines, the breeding range of Egyptian Vultures has contracted and the population in the Balkan Peninsula has fragmented into six subpopulations separated by more than 80 km. Population declines may be driven by factors such as poisoning, electrocution, direct persecution and changes in food availability which operate at large spatial scales and affect birds both on breeding grounds as well as during migration and wintering. Because the relative importance of threats to the survival of Egyptian Vultures are poorly understood, there is a critical need for research into causes of mortality and potential conservation actions that may halt and reverse population declines.
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