Justification of Red List Category
Whilst highly visible, this species is naturally scarce with a small global population, which is declining due to direct and indirect persecution by humans. Mass poisonings in Argentina, Colombia and Peru, with suspected cases in Ecuador and Bolivia, threaten this wide-ranging scavenger. A further substantial threat is lead poisoning, which has recently been found to be widespread across its range. The species is consequently listed as Vulnerable.
The species is naturally scarce. The global population has been estimated at 10,000 individuals, which equates to 6,700 mature individuals; however, recent information suggests that this is a maximum estimate (R. Wallace in litt. 2020). In Venezuela, the species may no longer be resident, with infrequently observed individuals probably visiting from Colombia, where recent population estimates detail 130 individuals, including reintroduced birds (Renjifo et al. 2016). In Ecuador, the population is estimated at 150 individuals (Naveda et al. 2016, Vargas et al. 2018). Peru holds a minimum of 150-250 individuals (Piana and Angulo 2015) and Bolivia holds around 1,400 individuals (Méndez et al. 2019). Chile and Argentina hold up to 2,000 individuals each, though there may be an overlap in these estimates (Wallace et al. 2020). The largest known population is in north-west Patagonia, with about 300 individuals, including 200 mature individuals (Lambertucci 2010, V. Escobar-Gimpel in litt. 2020). Despite being a wide-ranging species that covers large distances, it shows substantial genetic structuring, with dispersal being modulated by topographic features (Padró et al. 2018). It is therefore tentatively assumed that the species forms several subpopulations, which contain less than 1,000 mature individuals each, but this requires confirmation.
The species is in rapid decline caused by a variety of threats, including direct persecution by humans, lead poisoning, and deterioration of habitat quality through deliberate poisoning of carcasses. Even though the rate of decline has not been quantified across the entire range, it is suspected to fall in the band 30-49% over three generations (86.7 years; Wallace et al. 2020).
Vultur gryphus occurs along the length of the Andes in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, south to Argentina and Chile (Houston 1994, Wallace et al. 2020). The species is considered vagrant in Venezuela, Paraguay and Brazil. Populations are exceedingly rare in the northern part of its range, particularly in Venezuela where the species is possibly no longer resident. Re-introduction programmes using rescued and captive-bred individuals have been implemented in Colombia, Chile and Argentina (Hilty and Brown 1986, Houston 1994, Astore et al. 2017).
The species is found principally over open grassland and mountainous regions up to 5,000 m, as well as adjacent upper and mid-montane cloud forests, descending to lowland desert regions and coastlines in Chile and Peru (Houston 1994, Parker et al. 1996), and over the steppes and southern-beech forests in Patagonia (S. Imberti in litt. 2020).
The species is clearly adapted for exceptionally low mortality and reproductive output, and is therefore highly vulnerable to negative demographic events including human persecution, which persists across its range owing to alleged attacks on livestock (Houston 1994, Cailly Arnulphi et al. 2017). Observations in the last decade or so have confirmed that individuals occasionally attack the soft body parts of juvenile domestic cattle (N. Rios per R. Wallace 2004, H. Vargas and F. Sáenz pers. obs. per R. Wallace in litt. 2020). Intensive observations in the field show that this appears to be an extremely rare event that represents less than 1% of the mortalities of livestock (Ballejo et al. 2020).
In addition, the persecution of mountain lions and foxes through the illegal poisoning of carcasses is seriously affecting the species in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and probably Bolivia (Pavez and Estades 2016, Alarcón and Lambertucci 2018, Pauli et al. 2018, Piana 2019, Estrada Pacheco et al. 2020, F. Sáenz and D. Méndez per R. Wallace in litt. 2020, G. Wiemeyer in litt. 2020). This threat is increasing in intensity. By early 2020, species experts had systematized 225 individuals across the range, with about 50% of recorded cases resulting in mortality, although this percentage is biased by rescue centre animals and mortality rates are likely higher, as many dead poisoning victims are almost certainly not detected or reported across the range.
The species is highly dependent on the carcasses of exotic herbivores in Argentina, which form 98.5% of their diet, making them vulnerable to changes in livestock raising and to the consumption of hunting ammunition (Lambertucci et al. 2009). Interspecific competition for carcasses with American Black Vulture Coragyps atratus, which have recently begun to occupy the same areas, may have a deleterious effect on Andean Condor populations (Carrete et al. 2010, Ballejo et al. 2018). Similarly, a number of studies have revealed the significance of other threats to the species including lead poisoning (Lambertucci et al. 2011, Wiemeyer et al. 2017, Plaza et al. 2020), illegal use in folkloric events (Piana 2014, 2019), illegal wildlife trade (Williams et al. 2011), use as pets (Pavez and Estades 2016), collisions with electrical and telecommunication infrastructure (S. Lambertucci pers. obs.) and competition with feral dogs (D. Méndez and H. Vargas pers. obs.). Habitat is lost through the conversion of natural vegetation for agricultural use and plantations (H. Vargas in litt. 2020).
Conservation Actions Underway
CITES Appendix I. CMS Appendix II. Population censuses have been carried out using photography/video to recognize individual birds at feeding stations (Ríos-Uzeda and Wallace 2007, Méndez et al. 2019), as well as roosting site counts (Kusch 2006, Lambertucci et al. 2008, Lambertucci 2013, Cailly Arnulphi et al. 2013, Naveda et al. 2016, Vargas et al. 2018) and genetic studies (Alcaide et al. 2010, Padró et al. 2018, 2019, Perrig et al. 2019). Ongoing satellite telemetry studies in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are beginning to reveal the scale of individual movements, as well as helping to identify and determine subpopulations across the range. Species experts have identified and highlighted the major conservation stronghold for the species across the range and identified conservation actions (Wallace et al. 2020).
Conservation Actions Proposed
Increase efforts to census the population, especially in Argentina, Chile and Peru (Wallace et al. 2020). Develop specific and comprehensive analyses and conservation plans with integrated and diverse conservation actions for the identified Priority Andean Condor Conservation Units (Wallace et al. 2020). Work with the local governments to address the most pressing threats to the populations, including introducing legislation regarding the use of poisons in carcasses directed at wildlife in general (Wallace et al. 2020). Highlight the unique cultural relevance of the species in an effort to reduce local persecution in the face of conflicts with livestock owners.
Text account compilers
Lambertucci, S., Hermes, C., Wallace, R.B.
Benstead, P., Capper, D., Chebez, J.C., Clay, R.P., Escobar-Gimpel, V., Imberti, I., Mazar Barnett, J., Méndez, D., Pearman, M., Piana, R., Sharpe, C.J., Sharpe, C J, Symes, A., Sáenz-Jiménez, F., Vargas, F., Wiemeyer, G. & Williams, R.
BirdLife International (2021) Species factsheet: Vultur gryphus. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 09/03/2021. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2021) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 09/03/2021.