A Scottish university has uncovered the "massive decline" of birds of prey in Africa, with 90 per cent of the continent's “spectacular” species under threat of extinction.

Raptors are leading an "increasingly perilous existence" and are "vanishing into oblivion" due to the drastic loss of habitat, food and breeding sites and persecution from poachers and farmers. 

Poisoning, electrocution, and collision with wind turbines, as well as ritual killings, were all major threats to survival, according to researchers from the University of St Andrews and the Peregrine Fund.

Read more: Wind turbines a 'threat' to endangered Scottish birds of prey

A report published in Nature Ecology & Evolution warned of declines among nearly 90 per cent of 42 species, and more than two-thirds may be globally threatened.

Monitoring began in West Africa in the 1970s, where the average decline rate was more than twice that of other regions – but some species are now deemed to be on the brink of extinction by ornithologists.

The Herald: The distinctive Secretarybird is among the most threatened speciesThe distinctive Secretarybird is among the most threatened species (Image: Flickr)

Dr Phil Shaw, of the School of Biology at St Andrews, and Dr Darcy Ogada, of the Peregrine Fund, combined counts from road surveys conducted within four African regions at intervals of about 20–40 years.

They found raptors declined more than twice as fast outside of National Parks, reserves and other protected areas.

Large raptor species experienced significantly steeper declines particularly on unprotected land due to persecution and human pressures, the study showed.

It warned eagles and vultures were unlikely to survive the 21st Century on unprotected land, and highlighted steep declines among raptors classified as being of least concern in the global red list of threatened species.

Birds including Wahlberg’s eagle, African hawk-eagle, Long-crested eagle, African harrier-hawk and brown snake eagle, as well as dark chanting-goshawk, declined at rates suggesting they may now be globally threatened.

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Several other previously widespread raptor species are now scarce or absent from unprotected land, including the martial Eagle – as well as the bateleur.

Dr Darcy Ogada said: “Africa is at a crossroads in terms of saving its magnificent birds of prey.

“In many areas we have watched these species nearly disappear. One of Africa’s most iconic raptors, the secretarybird, is on the brink of extinction.

“There’s no single threat imperilling these birds, it’s a combination of many human-caused ones, in other words we are seeing deaths from a thousand cuts.”

Dr Phil Shaw called for Africa's protected areas to be extended.

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He said: “Since the 1970s, extensive areas of forest and savanna have been converted into farmland, while other pressures affecting African raptors have likewise intensified.

“With the human population projected to double in the next 35 years, the need to extend Africa’s protected area network – and mitigate pressures in unprotected areas – is now greater than ever”.

The research was hailed as “important” by a bird expert uninvolved in the study, who also urged for greater protective measures.

Veteran ornithologist Ian Newton said: “This is an important paper which draws attention to the massive declines in predatory birds which have occurred across much of Africa during recent decades.

“This was the continent over which, only 50 years ago, pristine populations of spectacular raptors were evident almost everywhere, bringing excitement and wonder to visitors from many parts of the world.

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“The causes of the declines are many: from rampant habitat destruction to growing use of poisons by farmers and poachers and expanding powerline networks – all ultimately due to expansions in human numbers, livestock grazing and other activities.

“Let us hope that more research can be done and, more importantly, that these birds can be protected over ever more areas, measures largely dependent on the education and goodwill of local people.”

The study’s findings align with the Convention on Biological Diversity’s COP15 goal of expanding conservation areas to cover 30 per cent of land by 2030.

Dr Ralph Buij, who re-surveyed some of the original areas for the Peregrine Fund, said: “The human footprint is particularly high throughout West Africa’s savannas, and the near complete disappearance of many raptors outside that region’s relatively small and fragmented protected area network reflects an ecological collapse that is increasingly affecting other parts of the continent.

“Some raptors that occur mostly in West Africa, such as the little-known Beaudouin’s snake eagle, are vanishing into oblivion.”

The researchers developed the African Raptor Leadership Grant, launched last year, to address the immediate need for more research and conservation programmes as well as training African scientists.