Blood and bone lead levels in South Africa's Gyps vultures: Risk to nest-bound chicks and comparison with other avian taxa
Poisoning, including secondary lead poisoning, is cited as the single most important cause of vulture mortalities in Africa. To evaluate the prevalence of lead poisoning among South Africa's Gyps vultures compared to other, non-scavenging birds, we obtained blood and bone samples from Cape (Gyps coprotheres) and White-backed (G. africanus) vultures. We found that 66% of White-backed Vultures (n = 110, including 85 nest-bound chicks sampled at Dronfield Nature Reserve) and 80% of Cape Vultures (n = 15) had blood [Pb] in excess of 10 μg/dL, the upper limit of background exposure. Average blood [Pb] were 15.4 μg/dL and 29.7 μg/dL for White-backed and Cape vultures, respectively. Bone samples revealed that 12% of White-backed Vultures (n = 18) and 9% of Cape Vultures (n = 75) suffered from subclinical to severe clinical lead poisoning upon their deaths. By contrast, none of the 40 blood, bone or liver samples obtained from non-scavenging bird species were found to exceed background exposure levels. Our results suggest that, unlike non-scavenging birds, the scavenging lifestyle of Gyps vultures subjects them to lead poisoning on a regular basis. Had environmental sources of lead (e.g., dust) been the source of the lead poisoning at the White-backed Vulture breeding colony at Dronfield, all the chicks would have displayed similar blood lead concentrations. Instead the values ranged from barely detectable to very high, leading us to conclude that metallic lead fragments regurgitated by parents during feeding are responsible for the elevated lead levels in some of the chicks at this site. We conclude the likely source of these particles to be fragments of lead ammunition embedded in the carcasses of hunted animals. These results add to a growing body of evidence underscoring the threat posed by the use of lead ammunition and its potential role in the declines of vultures and other scavenging taxa. Keywords: Vulture, lead, blood, bone, chick, ammunition.
Science of the Total Environment