An Egyptian vulture sitting on a powerline

Poorly designed power lines killing globally threatened birds of prey

Image credit: Andras Kovacs

Dangerous power lines are electrocuting globally threatened vultures and eagles along their important migratory flyways, according to the RSPB.

Ongoing developments to improve universal access to electricity, while necessary, are unfortunately also undermining conservation work to protect endangered birds of prey and potentially causing population declines in Europe.

The widespread threats in Ethiopia are particularly worrying as the country is a global hotspot for vulture conservation. Endangered birds of prey are being killed in Africa and the Middle East through poorly designed power lines, scientists have warned.

Two papers, published recently in the journal Bird Conservation International, have highlighted the threats posed to globally threatened birds of prey. Large wintering congregations of steppe eagles in the Saudi Arabian desert and Egyptian vultures in Ethiopia are increasingly being exposed to electricity infrastructure that can cause fatal electrocution for the birds.

Most birds can safely sit on a power line without being harmed. However, if a power pole is poorly designed, large birds that land on it come into contact with both the grounded support structure and the live wire – which leads to instant death of the bird by electrocution, as well as disruption to the local electricity power supply. Although this problem has been known for decades, ongoing power-development projects are known to still be using inadequate power line designs.

Steppe eagles and powerline - inline

Image credit: Andras Kovacs

Large eagles and vultures soar over even the most remote places of Africa and southern Asia, and provide the vital service of removing rotting carcasses from the landscape. Whether dead cattle, elephants or antelopes, vultures ensure that these carcasses are cleaned up free of charge. The catastrophic decline of vultures in India, by contrast, has led to an overabundance of feral dogs and increased rabies infections in people.

Steffen Oppel, conservation scientist at the RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science and lead author of the vulture paper, said: “Many countries in Africa and the Middle East aim to improve livelihoods of people living in rural areas by providing electricity – a convenience many people take for granted – but small power lines are often the inadvertent cause of death for many large birds.”

Many power line designs are perfectly safe for birds of all sizes to roost on, but unfortunately these can be more expensive to construct and are therefore often not used in remote development projects. Better-designed power lines would immediately eliminate the electrocution risk to large birds, reduce maintenance costs and increase the reliability of the power supply. While such improved designs should be used in all new infrastructure developments, existing infrastructure can be refurbished to reduce the already existing threats.

Stoyan Nikolov, manager of an EU-funded project to save Egyptian vultures in eastern Europe, said: “Conservation efforts to protect these birds in Europe or in western and central Asia are being undermined and it’s especially frustrating as there are solutions. Funders and governments who aim to improve livelihoods of rural people should consider the critical services that many large birds provide and invest in infrastructure that does not undermine the goal of providing healthy livelihoods to people.”

The threats are particularly worrying in Ethiopia as seven species of vulture regularly occur there. The country also hosts some of the largest congregations of wintering Egyptian vultures, a bird which has declined by more than 50 per cent since the 1990s. Steppe eagles were officially listed as endangered in 2015 after their population underwent rapid declines due to habitat destruction, persecution and death by power line.

Another new study – published in the same issue of Bird Conservation International – shows that existing protected areas are insufficient to conserve these vulture populations, as only around one-fifth of vulture priority areas fall within protected areas. In addition, because vultures travel large distances in search of food, most individual vultures spend the majority of their time outside of protected areas, even if they regularly roost, breed or forage inside a protected area.

Thus, it is essential that lethal threats to vultures are removed from the entire landscape so that vultures have a chance to survive outside of protected areas.

The research was undertaken by the RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science, BirdLife International Africa, Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds, Ethiopian Wildlife Natural History Society, Sahara Conservation Fund, Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, and Hawkwatch International.

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