Africa’s birds of prey face extinction, new study says

Milliam Murigi

January 29, 2024

A recent study shows that Africa’s birds of prey, also known as raptors, are confronting an alarming extinction crisis. Habitat conversion to farmland, prey-base depletion, and persecution (shooting, trapping, poisoning), driven principally by human population expansion, are some of the contributing factors to this crisis.

Other factors are unintentional poisoning, electrocution/collision with energy infrastructure, and killing for food and belief-based uses.

“Africa is at a crossroads in saving its magnificent birds of prey. In many areas, we have watched these species nearly disappear. One of Africa’s most iconic raptors, the Secretary bird, is on the brink of extinction,” says Dr Darcy Ogada from Peregrine Fund and one of the study’s authors.

“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.”

The birds are adept hunters

Raptors are a group of predatory birds characterized by their keen eyesight, powerful talons, and strong, hooked beaks. These birds are adept hunters, preying on various animals, including mammals, birds, and sometimes even reptiles. Birds of prey play a crucial role in maintaining ecosystem balance by controlling the populations of other species.

According to the study that was first published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, African savanna raptors such as the Rüppell’s Vulture, the Steppe Eagle, and the iconic Secretary bird are showing evidence of widespread and significant population declines and a growing dependence on protected areas across the African continent.

Among the 42 African raptor species, 37 (88 percent) have declined over a 20–40-year period, with 29 (69 percent) exceeding the International Union for Conservation of Nature criteria classifying species at risk of extinction.

Large raptors are experiencing significantly steeper declines than smaller species, and this disparity is more pronounced on unprotected land. Declines are more significant in West Africa than elsewhere and more than twice as severe outside protected areas (PAs) than within.

‘Improve our conservation actions’

“Decline of more than 30 African raptors over 20–40-year period is alarming. As an organization, we rely on such findings to improve our conservation actions and target places that make a difference,” says Fadzai Matsvimbo, Preventing Extinctions Program Coordinator, BirdLife International Africa.

“Birdlife International Africa has over the years been working with the network of partners across Africa to combat threats to raptors,” adds Matsvimbo.

Worryingly, species suffering the steepest declines have become significantly more dependent on PAs. This demonstrates the importance of expanding conservation areas to cover 30 percent of land by 2030, a key target agreed at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity COP15.

“If no conservation interventions are put in place, these species will become extinct, and that is why urgent action is imperative,” says Paul Gacheru, a wildlife ecologist who works for Nature Kenya.

“The absence of protective measures places these birds of prey at an increased risk of population decline and eventual extinction.”

According to Gacheru, without targeted conservation efforts, the ongoing conversion of wooded habitats to farmland and other anthropogenic activities will continue eroding the natural environments these birds depend on for nesting, roosting, and hunting.

Widespread land conversion and habitat degradation

The consequences extend beyond the individual species. The loss of birds of prey can disrupt entire ecosystems, leading to imbalances in prey populations and potential cascading effects throughout the food chain.

According to the report, the loss and depletion of birds of prey will also disrupt ecosystem functioning. Ecosystem services provided by raptors include rapidly removing carcasses, potentially limiting the transmission of zoonotic diseases to human populations.

“Urgent measures, including addressing human-wildlife conflicts, improving land management practices, and fostering awareness, are deemed crucial,” Matsvimbo.

“The broader perspective offered, linking the fate of raptors to the overarching biodiversity crisis in Africa, reinforces the interconnectedness of all life forms and the imperative to protect the delicate balance sustaining ecosystems and humanity alike.”

Africa is exceptionally important for global raptor conservation as it supports many threatened species. However, according to the report, the rapid expansion of the continent’s human population has led to widespread land conversion and habitat degradation, dramatically affecting many raptor populations.

Cumulative human impacts on all birds of prey are being felt across the African continent. Still, they are especially acute in some regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, which has lost almost five million hectares of forest and non-forest natural vegetation annually between 1975 and 2000.

“This study is another wake-up call for all the countries that share populations of migratory birds of prey, within and outside Africa. Fortunately, we have the tools and internationally agreed action plans to reverse these alarming negative trends in African raptor populations. Yet it is also clear that more coordinated efforts are needed to implement them,” says Dr Umberto Gallo-Orsi, Head of the Coordinating Unit of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) Raptors MOU and co-author of the study.

The study also highlights steep declines among raptors currently classified as ‘least concern’ in the global Red List of threatened species. They include African endemics such as Wahlberg’s Eagle, African Hawk-eagle, Long-crested Eagle, African Harrier-hawk, Brown Snake-eagle, and Dark Chanting-goshawk. These species have declined at rates suggesting 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 – and the highly distinctive Bateleur.

“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,” reads the report.

The alarming new population trends for African raptors were also echoed in the first conservation status assessment report of migratory raptors under the CMS Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Birds of Prey in Africa and Eurasia (Raptors MOU), which was presented to countries at the Third Raptors MOU Signatories Meeting held in Dubai, UAE, in July 2023.

The CMS Raptors MOU status report revealed that over 50 percent of migratory birds of prey in Africa and Eurasia are threatened with extinction.

Under the agreement, signatory States of the Raptors MOU and CMS Parties are encouraged to develop national action plans to address these threats and restore the species’ populations.

Examples of such plans include a Biodiversity Management Plan for vulture populations developed by South Africa and a National Raptor Conservation Strategy in Morocco, which is at an advanced stage of development.

“The Signatory states of the Raptors MOU have identified almost 230 important African raptor sites that must be protected and conserved. Ensuring all these sites are well-connected and protected is vital to safeguarding the future of our raptors,” says Umberto Gallo-Orsi, Head of Raptors MoU Coordinating Unit at the Convention on Migratory Species (UNEP-CMS).

Restore natural habitats

Protecting these sites will also contribute to international efforts to reach the 30 by 30 Global Biodiversity Targets agreed upon by world leaders through adopting the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.

The CMS Raptors MOU is one of several instruments operating under the Convention of Migratory Species and provides the institutional framework for governments and experts to address the many challenges that birds of prey face across the African-Eurasian Flyway, which spans 131 counties.

The report underscores a 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.

“There is a need for governments across Africa to commit to safeguarding the remaining natural habitats not just for the conservation of raptors but for human benefit as well,” says Matsvimbo.


Milliam Murigi is a Kenyan science journalist who writes for the People Daily newspaper, Sayansi Magazine, and the Bird news agency on health, the environment, agriculture, and technology.