Nature and Biodiversity

Two-thirds of Africa’s birds of prey are on the brink of extinction. Here's why that could be bad news for humans

Bird of prey.

Many of Africa's birds of prey are at risk of extinction. Image: Unsplash/Ray Hennessyh

Madeleine North
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Nature and Biodiversity

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • Almost 90% of 42 African raptor species have significantly declined over the past 40 years, with over two-thirds at risk of extinction, a new study finds.
  • As a result of these apex predators disappearing, the ecosystem is disrupted, leaving humans more vulnerable to zoonotic diseases.
  • Biodiversity loss is the third biggest threat to the world in the coming decade, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024.

They may be apex predators, but Africa’s birds of prey are being steadily wiped out.

Populations of 42 African raptor species have declined so significantly over the past 40 years – by almost 90% – that two-thirds of them are now at risk of extinction, a new study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution finds.

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Percentage change in the number of individuals encountered per 100 km during road transect surveys, projected over three generation lengths.
Over two-thirds of Africa’s raptors are now endangered. Image: Springer Nature/Phil Shaw et al

Vultures, eagles, buzzards and kestrels are among the raptors identified as “facing an extinction crisis” on the continent. And yet 13 of them are currently listed as being of ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List of globally threatened species.

The knock-on effect is significant, say the researchers. The birds’ decline, like all biodiversity loss, can “trigger extensive cascading effects” to the food chain and, ultimately, to human health.

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Why are Africa’s raptors in decline?

While poaching, poisoning and collisions with powerlines have all contributed, the primary cause of the raptors’ depleting numbers is habitat loss, say the researchers. “The conversion of wooded habitats to agricultural land is more damaging to biodiversity than any other human activity and poses the greatest extinction risk to birds worldwide.”

As the chart below shows, this doesn’t just apply to Africa – or birds. Habitat loss is the greatest threat to all wildlife across the world.

Distribution of the main regional threats to wildlife populations in the Living Planet Index
Habitat degradation is the main driver of biodiversity loss globally. Image: Statista

Africa has lost around 22% of its forested area since 1900, reports Chatham House – equivalent to losses in the Amazon rainforest – while just 14% of land currently consists of protected areas for wildlife.

These protected areas are vital for the continent’s raptors. Declines in population numbers were twice as severe outside of them, the researchers found, which demonstrated the importance of meeting the UN’s target of ensuring 30% of land is protected by 2030, they said.

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How biodiversity loss impacts human health

A reduction in birds of prey means an increase in carcasses – the removal of which is one of the “ecosystem services” provided by the raptors. As that ecosystem functioning breaks down, humans, in turn, become more vulnerable to zoonotic diseases, say the researchers.

These fears are not unfounded. In the 1990s, India’s vulture population went into a sudden decline; animal carcasses consequently piled up, dogs took over as the main scavengers and rabies infections from dog bites caused tens of thousands of deaths each year, reports The Guardian.

This is one of the reasons why biodiversity loss has been ranked the third biggest threat to the world in the coming decade, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024.

Notably, infectious diseases come in at 19th place on the list of global risks over the long term, a significant leap up from last year’s report where they ranked 27th.

Can Africa’s raptor population be recovered?

“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,” said one of the report’s authors, Dr Phil Shaw.

The study calls for “effective legislation for species protection”, better management of protected areas for raptors and improved law enforcement for poaching, among other measures.

“Broad-scale interventions and collaborations are … urgently required to address the multitude of threats facing raptors in unprotected areas,” the report concluded. Without such changes, there is “cause to doubt whether large raptors will persist over much of Africa’s unprotected land in the latter half of this century”.

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Nature and BiodiversityAfricaFuture of the Environment
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