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New research uncovers disturbing pattern in the decline of African raptors: 'It's a wake-up call'

In these areas, protections "exist in name only."

In these areas, protections “exist in name only."

Photo Credit: iStock

A recent study reported that raptors across Africa are suffering a significant population decline. But what alarmed researchers the most is that these losses are happening both inside and outside of national parks. 

What's happening?

A team of researchers surveyed populations of 42 species of raptors in four regions of sub-Saharan Africa. Scientists in these regions have collected raptor population data since 1969, so the team was able to calculate accurate changes — and they were devastated by the results.

It's "shocking," said Dr. Darcy Ogada, one of the study's authors. She reported that 88% of the surveyed species had declined significantly in the past several decades, and 69% are now either threatened with extinction or at least more endangered than previously thought. Certain species, like the secretary bird and the martial eagle, have declined by 85 to 90%.

The reasons behind these declines are numerous, with habitat loss being the leading cause. Raptors are also threatened by poaching, electrocution, wind turbines and other technology, power lines, and the changing climate.

"We're looking at really iconic species in Africa that are declining significantly," Dr. Ogada said. "It's a wake-up call."

Why is raptor loss so concerning?

Birds of prey are critical to their ecosystems for several reasons. They serve as apex predators, keeping other populations under control. As scavengers, they prevent disease from spreading, and they recycle nutrients back into the environment. 

More broadly, they serve as key indicator species: If a bird of prey is thriving, it means that small vertebrates are thriving, which indicates that plant life is thriving.

"Losing [these birds] is going to have major trickle-down impacts to the rest of the ecosystem," Dr. Ogada said.

Additionally, perhaps the most concerning find was that these losses were significant both outside and within national parks. 

One explanation for this, Dr. Ogada suggested, is the existence of Africa's "paper parks." In these areas, protections "exist in name only," and both a lack of funds and lack of management are a "major problem for wildlife."

What's being done to protect raptors?

Many research and conservation groups are working to combat the losses. One way they're doing so is by updating conservation statuses. 

Dr. Stuart Butchart of BirdLife International explained that those statuses help "set action priorities by governments and other stakeholders, such as working with local communities to protect land, increasing efforts to protect raptors, and making sure that new infrastructure – like wind turbines – are installed with minimal impacts to birds."

Gaining local buy-in is also crucial in accomplishing conservation objectives, which is why the researchers launched a new educational mentorship initiative, the African Raptor Leadership Grant, which is aimed at African scientists across the continent.

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