The dwindling populations of vultures in South Africa are being threatened by power cables, agricultural chemicals and a superstition that the birds' body parts carry mystical powers.
Scientists said Wednesday they also suspect that feeding sites called "vulture restaurants" — promoted as part of conservation programs — might instead be killing the endangered creatures.
The World Wildlife Fund South Africa said there was an urgent need to research whether the feeding sites were harming the birds, and has teamed up with agricultural services company AFGRI to sponsor the Vulture Evaluation Project to tag and monitor vultures.
"Although vultures are often and correctly associated with death because of their scavenging nature, their very presence can be regarded as an indication that all is well," said WWF conservation director Rob Little.
He said farmers also needed to be taught about the dangers of offering carcasses contaminated by lead pellets, painkillers, antibiotics or other potentially harmful medicines.
Because South Africa's farming industry is more efficient than elsewhere on the continent, vultures have less access to livestock carrion. So many farmers regularly take carcasses to the 236 "vulture restaurants," which have become tourist attractions.
"Vulture restaurants are a good idea," Little said. "But we must do it in a clean way."
The head of the new research program, which started up late last year, also said conservation efforts may be backfiring.
"For many years we addressed issues like power lines and poisoning," Kerri Wolter said. "But we are still losing our vultures and we are not quite sure why. The restaurants might be one of the factors."
Many species of vultures worldwide are now classed as threatened, and some could face extinction. In India and Pakistan, some species have been driven to the verge of extinction in the past 12 years by eating carcasses tainted with Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory painkiller given to sick cows and which is highly toxic to vultures.
In South Africa, Diclofenac is not used.
But another threat comes from traditional medicine traders who — amid beliefs that vulture body parts hold good luck and clairvoyant powers — hunt the birds with shotguns, traps and poison.
Little estimated the trade in vulture parts to be worth $150,000 a year.
"Traders sell anything from an eyeball to a whole vulture," Little said, adding that the problem existed in other African countries as well.