The Vulture Markets of Namu: Reminiscence of vulture Disappearance in North-Central Nigeria

It was with eagerness that I visited Namu in May of 2016. I boarded a car that left Shendam straight to Namu. I went there on their market day as suggested by some of the locals. On entering the market, I asked some few individuals some questions on vultures and I was told that it’s been many years when they saw live vultures. I was directed to where birds’ parts were sold and at a corner close to some butchers I came across dealers dealing in Vulture parts. Seven young men and even a teenager selling Vulture parts and parts of other birds such as the secretary bird, hammer-kops, pea cocks etc. I was so amazed by the sight of the dead Vultures and their parts.

I requested to have a video interview with some of the dealers and three of them couldn’t grant me the permission as they were scared. They seemed to suspected me as some one close to government’s law enforcement agencies. It took some effort of smiles and convincing asurances that I was a researcher working on how traditional medicine practitioners used animals’ parts in medicine, before a young man of about twenty five years of age accepted that I interviewed him on camera. Others later thought that the interview session was to publicise and help to advertise their work hence they agreed and also asked me to interview them.

I was told the different prices of Vulture parts. I saw a complete dead hooded vulture, White-backed Vulture and other parts such as the heads, eyes, legs wings and hearts of different Vultures. I saw different people of different ages and status patronising the Vulture dealers. A complete Vulture had a cost range of one hundred and fifty thousand naira (N150,000) to three hundred thousand naira (N300,000). Vulture heads with its two eyes intact cost fifty to eighty thousand naira depending on the different dealers and bargaining power of the person buying. I witnessed the bargaining and buying of a Vulture head and legs. Some one came and bought just the Vulture feather. Some women were there looking for the vulture eggs which were not found but the dealer promised to bring one for them by next market day but at good price.

My interview with them revealed that most of them were introduced in to the trades in vulture parts by their parents and they were so happy and proud to do it. They depend on the sales to support their families. Many politicians, gamblers and adventurers visited them to purchase vulture parts for traditional medicine that will give them lucks and favour in their pursuits as one of them told me. Most of the dealers believed that vulture eyes can make a person to know what shall happen with him or his business in future. They thought the keen eye sight of vultures can be transferred to human when mixed with some traditional medicine that was why some politicians directly or indirectly contacted them for the parts. They believed that different sicknesses and diseases can be cured also by the the vultures’ organs such as hearts, crop, liver etc.

Most of the vultures were brought from the far Northern Nigerian states such as Bauchi, Kano, Katsina, Kaduna, Nasarawa state and Borno. A dealer told me that they can also sell vulture parts gotten from Plateau state to those Northern states. Some of the dealers have connections with other dealers that have links with other dealers in other African countries such as Binin Republic, Niger republic, Cameroon, Guinea, Mali and Chad.

After I left the market I went round different slaughter points and dumping sites in search of life vultures but to no success. I then realised that, it’s easy to find dead Vultures than live vultures in most African communities in general and Nigeria in particular. It’s truly not surprising that vultures seems to have disappeared in many Nigerian communities. Nigeria which used to have six different species of vultures have lost that pride to extinction caused mainly by trades in vulture parts. Today, only Hooded Vulture and White-backed Vulture are seen in their increasingly reducing numbers.

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The Vulture Mafias of Kanke: The Vulture Reminiscence in North-Central Nigeria

On arriving to Kanke, the first thing I did was to check the altitude from my GPS. The altitude of less than 700m.a.s.l, have links with the slightest high temperature of 29°C when Pankshin (the coldest LGA in Plateau state) was reading 15°C. The new terrain of high mountains and huge nim trees was a spectacular environment to expect more about vulture presence and threats.

Being new in the environment, a motor cyclist after brief discussion on my purpose of being in that town, agreed to be my local field assistant and guide, and also my driver. That did not go for free. He led me to where he knew vultures were seen. No vultures were there. We then asked people around for where vultures could also be found. Because of the wears I wore which was for my research convenience and for the gadgets I was having, some of the people mistook me for a Federal agent. It took time of explanations in their dialect by Mr Kirwe (my local field assistant), before some group of young men in a garage stepped forward, when we were about leaving. A young man dark in complexion and looking dirty and shabby with the oils on his body, came closer as if to tell me what no one should hear in a whisper. He opened his mouth to talk, and then as if in a second thought, he declined to speak and looked at me in the eyes as I smiled with reasurance of no harm. He then spoke in a little voice, “na we be the vulture mafias, we go catch plenty for you if you go pay for each vulture.” He finally talked in pidgin English; a broken English popular in Nigeria. He thought I wanted them to kill the vultures for me. He said they have been killing the vultures for people who paid them. He told me that, most people came from Bauchi; a neighbouring state, and they usually catch the vultures for them dead or alive. I told him no, I just wanted to know where I can found the vultures alive for a survey, or where People sale their parts. He then stepped back; but I told him not to worry, I was just a researcher and not a security personnel. He was able to direct us to a place close to Bauchi state, where vulture parts were sold by the traders. I thanked him and gave him a token of money for the information.

We planned to visit the place where vulture parts were sold, but we were directed to where donkeys were slaughtered, and I saw seven vultures and many Yellow-billed kites competing on pieces of meat on donkey bones. On sighting us, the vultures were quick to fly away, but perched on nearby trees, as they were waiting for us to leave. We then moved back at least for 25 meters from where they were, and I used my binoculars to observe the competitive relationship between the vultures and the yellow-billed kites. I did my point counts, and returned later after the vultures and the kites had finished their foraging, and took the vegetation measurements.

Greeted by Vultures in Barkin Ladi: Reminiscence of vulture Disappearance in North-Central Nigeria

Quite unclear about how the research on vultures was going to be, I set out of the A. P. Leventis ornithological Research Institute, the Research camp where we were trained and hatched to set sail in to the world beyond the usual school gate and security. Yes, this time, we were out for a research purpose. Sponsored to adequately bring results, I had wandered just as many other people; vultures were not a common sight in the country, how can I see vultures to report on? I also thought in similar manner, but I remembered that, even coming across nothing is a reportable result.

I left Jos-East for Mangu LGA. While in Mangu, I decided to visit the boarder between Mangu and Barkin Ladi early in the morning with a research assistant. We were on motor bike as early before the cocks crowed from their roosts. We crossed a river and our journey continued. By 7:00am, we were approaching a large poultry farm. I saw a colony of Double spurred francolin, and I asked the research assistant who was the driver of the bike to stop. I removed my binoculars, and paired in to the distance which the spectacular view of the birds’ party early that morning, was unmistakable. Suddenly, I heard a kind of a greeting emanating from a tree top. It sure wasn’t from the francolins, it was a hooded vulture. Before setting out for the research,, I had learnt more about vultures’ calls, to the extent that, I was unable to miss any vultures’ call. The vulture was calling to the hearing of its other pair. The field assistant and I, were both happy as that was the first sighting of vultures in that research. I pulled up a Samsung camera which with my binoculars, was also hung round my neck. I was able to have a good snapshots of the pair of vultures. We then moved a little bit ahead, and we were face to face with many vultures. That was our destination on tip off from people. We alighted from the bike, and my pairs of binoculars did not miss the happy foraging vultures at a dumping site for poultry waste. It seemed, I saw some of the vultures feeding on maggots from the poultry waste, but I needed more time of observation or another research strategy to authenticate that. I saw only two juveniles among the forty nine (49) hooded vultures that were foraging there that morning. I was so happy and without delay, began my point-count of the vultures. One thing that was not deciphered, was the roosting site of those vultures. There is need for me to know were those vultures were coming from. Hence, outside my research plan, I started asking myriads of questions that needed answers. Where did the vultures come from? How far do the vultures travel in a year? Why was it that there were no many juveniles among the vultures? Those questions and many others, made me to think of planning another research to get answers I raised and many that still came to mind.

I left that spot, after the point count of the vultures and the vegetation measurements in twenty meters’ radius around the point where the vultures were found. Some one shall wonder how vegetation can affect vulture abundance. I thought of the threat affecting the vultures, and I wondered if the vultures will prefer an area with more vegetation cover for hiding from predators (most likely, dogs and human), when foraging than an open place. If more of them were found foraging at sites that were close to vegetation with good cover, that would be an indicator of perceived threats against them. If a vulture is threatened, it becomes more scared just like any other animal, and it takes precautions. That day, I left the site, full of optimism that vultures would not elude my vision. Sure, I left the site, a happy man.

The Reminiscence of Vultures and their Disappearance in North – central Nigeria

Back then in the 70s, and early 80s, vultures were a beautiful and rampant sights in abattoirs, and town outskirts. When ever there was a dead animal around, they located it first, leading curious eyes of people, to the exact spot where the dead animal was. Children used to fly their kites and were always happy to look in to the sky and also saw the hovering vultures. There used to be six species of vultures in Nigeria, all in their good numbers. In early 80s and middle 90s, the disappearance of vultures became glaring to curious minds, but to most unsuspecting people, nothing seemed to have happened or nothing changed. Only two species of vulture exists today out of the six species; the white-backed vulture and the hooded vulture (Necrosyretes monachus). Hooded vulture, is one of the old world vultures that still exists as others have gone in to extinction in the country. Not many people have noticed their disappearance. Hooded vulture too, is increasingly declining despite its being uplisted to Critically endangered species by the IUCN in 2015.

When I set out to investigate the cause of their disappearance in North -central Nigeria, I had asked different people different questions about when last they saw a vulture. You will be surprised to know that, some people seemed to have been woken from their slumber of noticing their disappearance. “Hmmm, it’s true my son, I don’t recall when last I saw a vulture around again, unlike in the 60s and 70s, when they competed with butchers in abattoirs for pieces of meat, or even struggling to pull a part of slaughtered cow away.” A man had replied me while touching his grey hair, as if in a struggle to think deep and far. Many people demanded to know why they have disappeared. My survey across all the 17 Local Government Areas of Plateau state (North- Central Nigeria), has answered the questions I raised, and which people continue to ask about why the vultures disappeared.

Continue to follow my blog, as we take a walk in to the mystery of the disappearance of vultures in North-Central Nigeria as I reveal all that I encountered, which also scared me; an experience of serendipity and hindsight which was the story of why vultures in Nigeria are easy to be found dead than alive. The story of the plight of vultures in the hands and plot of people. All these, will be the vivid tales of reality; a sober recollection of encounter and observations, in my months of searching for the threats affecting the vultures in the country.

From Kingfisher to Northern Carmine bee-eater

I came across this species of bird (Northern Carmine bee-eater) during birding in Bokkos last Saturday. That was the first time of encountering the species in my birding life. Quite a serendipity out there. A Nigerian birds atlassing team also reported coming across the species today in Gombe (Part of North-Eastern Nigeria). A research plan to survey the abundance and territory of the bird is on the way. They have a unique food finding technique, that took a lot of my time, getting me rapt in observing that behaviour. I was so happy that I found such a beautiful bird species’ colony close to a dam where I have been observing the feeding successes of Pied Kingfisher. They were seen perching on a tree together (12 of them). They were seen scanning around for bees and other eatable insects, and on sighting any, they flew to snap it with their beak. So, their feeding went on, until a passerby went close and they flew to the next branch of tree, ensuring that there was a safety gap between them and the woman looking for firewood. I focused my binocular on them, and I was fortunate to observe one of the birds feedingfeeding the other. More observation revealed that, it was an adult feeding a young one. The younger one perched watching its mother diving in the air, manoeuvring to catch the insect. That was a hunting learning process for the young one. The mother brought the caught prey as the young one opened its beak to receive as its wings softly flap, not in flight but in appreciation (I thought).

I came across Hooded Vultures

Just last year during the Christmas break in December, I went out for bird atlassing in a fresh pentad. I suddenly came across more than forty hooded vultures at a dump site for poultry waste at a boundary of two local government areas (Mangu and Barkinladi). The site was more in to Barkinladi in Plateau state, Nigeria.

The vultures were foraging on some death chicken thrown in the poultry waste. I was so happy and almost jumped with elation at such a serendipity. I focused on them with my pairs of 8 * 42 binoculars. Most of the vultures were adults and only few juveniles were in sight. I then thought on why there were only few juveniles. That was a question that called for a research. Before that day, I had never came across up to five vultures in a place except during my childhood.

The sudden disappearance of vultures from human communities, actually indicate a lot of things which are wrong with our environment and possibly, our behaviour. I focally observed the vultures for an hour and I was so glad as I noticed some foraging behaviour, vigilance and even courtship among them. My love for vultures increased even as a lot of questions about them were beckoning my heart into researching about them. I needed to know how distributed they were in Plateau state. What was there abundance? And what threats affect them? Where was there roosting sites? These questions were what I thought I needed to answer. I left the place happy with my mind already made up to push forward with the research on the vultures. I actually carried a research on them this year. In my next write-up, I will brief you about my findings in a little more detail than what I wrote yesterday. Have a good day!

The Vulture Nightmares

Vultures in Nigeria and other African countries, are facing serious threats from anthropogenic activities. Dealing in parts of vultures based on traditional beliefs is leading in the cause of their decline . My recent research across Plateau state, Nigeria, left me with tears at the outcome of the research and my encounter with vulture traders. I came across markets and dealers who displayed vulture parts at costly prices. What pains me so much, was a juvenile vulture which was captured last year September in the southern part of the state, by a traditional practitioner. He chained the vulture and tied its wings, as he fed it once in a day with pieces of meat. The vulture looked pathetic, dejected and abandoned. That was just an instance out of many such instances of vulture persecution. My survey showed that, some people are still eating the vulture meat openly and secretly. We need to protect the already critically endangered species of scavengers. We need them alive that when they are dead in our society. They can safe us so much money, because of their sanitation roles. We should know that, it is our responsibility all to ensure that, these important species of scavengers do not go to extinction in our generation and even many more generations to come. We wouldn’t have defence against our acts if posterity shall question us in future. Be an ambassador in the protection of vultures.