Nigeria is naturally enriched with a huge base of biological resources rarely found in other nations of the world. One of these biological resources is the old-world vulture, popularly called Igun, Udele and Ungulu by the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa tribes respectively. Until recently vultures are rarely hunted or harvested as existing cultural belief and tales shielded them as an important deity with mystical connotation. This shield has however been badly riddled as vultures once considered a deity is now massively harvested (dead or alive) for rituals and to appease other deities.
Vultures play a host of naturally beneficial functions similar to that of waste management agencies operative in states across Nigeria. The only difference however is that vultures don’t elicit the usual financial gestures mandatory to service the agencies. Vultures are effective in their roles as the detergent, sanitary and disease regulatory officers of the environment. They do not go on strike or protest as would the agencies if emoluments are not forthcoming. They are efficient as only 20 vultures will clean-up a dead carcass (as big as a cow) is just about 15 – 20 minutes.
Historically and in recent times, vultures were well woven into the belief system and culture of the society, such that senility and nest predation are the major causes of deaths in vulture. Vultures can live several decades, at least five, before natural mortality sets in. The belief that misfortune and sudden death await anyone that hurls harm at the old-world vulture has helped maintain a flourishing population of these birds. Vultures used to be common sights in municipal abattoirs and dump sites.
The belief attached some sort of mystic fable to vultures and the folklores of death were known to both the young and old. Communities relish the presence of vultures as symbolic of deity and tranquility –killing of vulture is therefore entirely forbidden is these communities. A maxim that has contributed so well in the conservation of vulture in Nigeria.
It is however amazing to see how rapidly the maxim lost its potency in curbing human excessiveness on vulture population. The belief system that once preserved vultures has fallen apart so greatly that, once upon a time, vultures which were not a veritable food source are now being cannily served as chicken barbecue by fraudulent “suya” merchants. Vultures, once upon a time, which were not considered usable as items for rituals are now being sought after for rites and rituals. Vultures, once upon a time, which were regarded as a harbinger of misfortune and death are now regarded as objects of fortune, and life. Vultures, once upon a time, a renowned deity are now sacrificial birds for appeasing the gods.
The traditional structure that forbade injury to vultures is the same structure, although now tainted with civility and audacity, that is promoting vultures as possessing magical and curative ingredients for luck and treating intractable ailments including epilepsy. The use of vulture for fetish and trado-medical purposes remains the greatest source of threat to vulture population in Nigeria, particularly in the South Western States.
To state the obvious is to say that vultures are presently in their hundreds, a far cry from the tens of thousands available some two (2) decades ago. The dramatic decline is not unconnected to the handsomely rewarding trade in vultures, as a wholesome vulture is said to cost between N32,000 and N40,000 in wildlife markets across Nigeria. Deliberate and accidental poisoning of vultures as well as habitat destruction are also contributory to vulture decline.
Vultures, particularly the hooded vulture, are critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list and may therefore be pushed to the brink of extinction if actions that degrade their populations continue unabated. Corrective actions are thus needed to engender rapid population recovery for sustainability and posterity. This is the core of conservation mandate and environmental stewardship.
Perhaps it is necessary to ask when vultures were last spotted in groups particularly in areas where their population once thrived? An honest response should elicit some sort of concerns that certain changes around us are not quickly noticed even at the detriment of our collective wellbeing. If vultures can disappear from the suburbs unnoticed despite their magnificent and gigantic body sizes, then anything can disappear unnoticed. Perhaps this underscores the consistently dwindling forest cover and why more species of plants and animals are periodically being enlisted as endangered in Nigeria.
The implications are far-reaching and mankind may gradually be sliding into reclusive poverty as some of these species may hold the key to ground-breaking scientific discovery in medicine. The situation is not yet hopeless, at least, not beyond redemption if we choose to evolve from the imperiously destructive approach to resource utilization to creative stewardship of the environment. Stewardships that sees plants and animals as equally important. Stewardship devoid of greediness and with foresight to bequeath as much indigenous biological resources as presently available to the future generation. A scriptural reference found in the Bible book of Proverbs 13:22 supports sustainability. It says “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children”.
This information piece is intended as an eye-opener to motivate Nigerian citizenry to action, particularly in support of vulture conservation and other components of the environment. It is never too late to become a “good man” in our stewardship of the environment. If vultures are capable of bringing the purported spiritual solutions, then it only appeals to correct reasoning to pool efforts together to prevent vultures from going into extinction in Nigeria particularly as they render environmental services worth millions of Naira.
•Aina is of the Technical Programs Department of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), Lagos.
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