As committed nature nerds, we know just how easy it is to get swept away by the excitement of a new species discovery. But a recent campaign from BirdLife South Africa just ahead of this weekend's International Vulture Awareness Day is a good reminder that it's just as important to focus our attention on species we already know about – especially those that are in danger of disappearing.  

To drive that point firmly (and cleverly) home, BirdLifeSA seeded a fake news story last week about the discovery of a previously unknown bird species during an ornithological expedition in South Africa's Limpopo province. The press announcement was accompanied by an image of the bird. 

Tuluver _vulture _2015_09_02

"The eye-catching bird has been described by the birding community as ‘beautiful’, owing to its striking size, brightly coloured plumage and a crown of feathers protruding from its head," said BirdLife in a statement, adding that the bird had been named "tuluver" pending the publication of its scientific name in a "prestigious" journal.

News of the discovery generated plenty of attention, with several local media outlets and radio stations covering the story. Debate followed as the tuluvers took flight on social media, with many users calling BirdLife's bluff and questioning the authenticity of the tuluver image.

A closer look at BirdLife's original announcement does reveal a few subtle clues that all is not as it seems – for one, the group made a point of emphasising just how surprising it was that such a distinctive and impressively sized bird had gone undetected for so long.

Some also noticed that tuluvers seemed to bear an uncanny resemblance to a rather iconic African bird: the vulture. “From the shape of its beak, we can determine that this is a scavenging species and that it feeds on disease-carrying carrion in the arid parts of southern Africa,” said BirdLife's statement. “If these tuluvers were not feeding on these carcasses, it could otherwise lead to the spread of diseases such as anthrax, botulism and rabies, at significant human and economic cost.”

After the flurry of speculation, BirdLife finally let the bird out of the bag earlier today, posting this video of a tuluver being digitally deconstructed to reveal a lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotos) hiding beneath. Reshuffle a few letters, and tuluver becomes vulture.  

The PR stunt, the group said, was an effort to spotlight the importance of vulture conservation on the continent. "Africa's vultures are in serious trouble and they need urgent conservation attention and, for this reason, we decided to use a brave approach during our International Vulture Awareness Day awareness efforts," explains the group's CEO, Mark D. Anderson.

While there's been plenty of praise for the campaign's inventiveness, comments on the group's Facebook page suggest that not everyone took kindly to being tricked by the tuluver.

“Science forms the basis to much of [our] work, so we realised that we could open ourselves up to criticism by announcing the discovery of a fictitious bird. [But] awareness is immensely important and therefore out-the-box type campaigns are occasionally necessary. We do apologise for any ‘feathers ruffled’, but we must be willing to be bold if we are to help ensure that Africa’s vultures do not follow the same path as their Asian cousins or the California condor,” said BirdLife in its defence. 

Given the campaign's unprecedented reach (about 250,000 Facebook users saw it during the first 48 hours alone), and knowing just how tough it is to bring less charismatic endangered species to the world's attention, we have to tip our hats to BirdLife for this one. 

Click here for more on Africa's vulture crisis, and check out this infographic showing their alarming decline:

Vulture Infographic 2015 06 22
Together, the eight species of African vultures have declined by an average of 60 percent. Seven of them – all but the bearded vultures – have declined by more than 80 percent. The worst off are the white-headed and Rüppell's vultures, which have declined by 96 and 97 percent, respectively.

Top header image: Peter Steward, Flickr