Guinea-Bissau vulture killing 'the biggest ever'


The recent mass killing of vultures in Guinea-Bissau – almost entirely involving Critically Endangered Hooded Vultures – has been described as the 'biggest ever' such event on record, according to the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF).

News of the atrocity started filtering out of the country in early March, with the confirmed death toll surging past the 1,000-mark just days later. Although the COVID-19 crisis has considerably hampered the investigation and recovery efforts, a total of 1,603 vulture carcasses had been officially logged by mid-April. Given the potential to miss carcasses, and the fact that some areas are currently unreachable, it is feared that the death toll could be considerably higher still, some way above 2,000.

Hooded Vulture corpses waiting to be incinerated (Mohamed Henriques).

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Reports from witnesses corroborated with suspicions that the vultures were poisoned intentionally, using poison baits placed around villages, so that vulture parts could be collected for belief-based ritual use, with demand related to the country's political instability. In some parts of Africa, some communities believe that possession of vulture heads is thought to bring good fortune or even special powers. In Guinea-Bissau at least 200 of the poisoned vultures have been found without their heads. Additionally, there have been reports that high demand for vulture body parts from neighbouring countries may have played a role.

The preliminary toxicology results have confirmed that the vultures were deliberately poisoned. The University of Lisbon examined the three Hooded Vulture carcasses that VCF managed to transfer from Guinea-Bissau to Portugal. The necropsy was done, samples for toxicology analysis were collected, and the first analysis determined it was a type of carbamate. Further analysis is now continuing to determine the exact substance used. VCF and its partners are still supporting and working with local authorities to investigate these incidents, put a halt to them and minimise future vulture mortalities.

José Tavares, Director of VCF, commented: "Guinea-Bissau holds one of the healthiest populations of this African species, with some estimates suggesting the country holds more than a fifth of the continent's global population of Hooded Vultures, but events of this scale will have adverse effects on the national but also regional West African populations."