Lead ingestion as a potential contributing factor to the decline in vulture populations in southern Africa

Environ Res. 2017 Jan:152:150-156. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2016.10.013. Epub 2016 Oct 20.


Vulture populations in southern Africa have been on the decline for years, which unlike the Asian vulture crisis, has no one specific cause. Reasons attributable are deliberate and secondary poisonings, drowning, power line injuries, electrocutions, traditional medicine ("muti" trade) and calcium deficiencies. However, lead toxicity as a potential causal factor is hardly mentioned. The potential for lead toxicity needs to be considered as substantial game hunting occurs in the region with little regulatory control on bullet types. In this study, we determined the whole blood lead concentrations of captive and wild vulture populations in South Africa and Namibia (n=185). Results were compared to previous published ranges indicative of background exposure (<10μg/dL), non-toxic point exposure based upon the range established from captive birds and subclinical exposure. In general, whole blood lead concentrations were higher for wild African White-backed vultures (Gyps africanus)(AWBV) than Cape vultures (G. coprotheres)(CGV) at 15.54±12.63μg/dL vs 12.53±8.88μg/dL (non-significantly different), while in the Bearded vultures (Gypaetus barbatus) no indication of exposure was evident. Very similar exposures resulted irrespective of the birds being in captivity or under wild, free-roaming conditions. A proportion of wild birds did, however, appear to be exposed to another source of lead than purely environmental (±12% and 30.6% for AWBV and CGV respectively). One bird, which had a whole blood concentration of 100μg/dL, died soon after capture. To find the relationship between whole blood lead concentration and likely exposure factors, birds were compared by their rural/urban location, vicinity to mines and surrounding soil lead concentrations. With no relationship being present for the latter factors, we believe that this is evidence that the portion of southern African vultures being exposed to unknown source of lead, which we suggest arises from leaded ammunition remaining from hunting.

Keywords: African White-backed vulture; Bearded vulture; Griffon vulture; Lead toxicity; Southern Africa; Whole blood.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Environmental Pollutants / blood*
  • Falconiformes / blood*
  • Falconiformes / metabolism*
  • Lead / blood*
  • Mining
  • Population Dynamics
  • South Africa


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Lead