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Another mass poisoning of vultures in Africa – 37 white-backed vultures dead in Zululand, South Africa

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In recent years there have been increasing reports of widespread use of poison impacting wildlife across Africa. Lions and other predators are poisoned in retaliation for depredation on livestock. The use of poisoned bait to kill elephants has been reported with increasing frequency, both to facilitate poaching and in retaliation for crop-damage. In one recent incident, 400-600 vultures died after feeding on a poisoned elephant carcass in the vicinity of the Bwabwata National Park in Namibia’s Caprivi-region. Last July 54 Cape Vultures were poisoned by a South African farmer using a chemichal called carbofuran.

The latest mass poisoning incident was reported last week (21 November 2013), when wildlife rangers came across the carcasses of 37 white-backed vultures, in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. The vultures were found in the immediate vicinity of a carcass of an elephant that had died a month previously, almost certainly poisoned. Twenty nine of the vultures had their heads removed, most likely for use in the traditional medicine trade. At least three of the vultures were adults, which mean that additional juvenile birds may die on their nests.

The Vulture carcasses have been taken for toxicology analysis to determine the type of poison used and the Organised Crime Unit has investigated the scene. The remains of the elephant and the vultures have now been burnt to ensure further deaths from scavenging from the poisoned elephant carcass do not occur. 

All vulture species are generally declining in Africa, with poisoning being the biggest threat. The Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, where this latest incident occurred, remains the last stronghold of vultures in Zululand – presently there are about 11 pairs of lappet-faced vultures, 5 pairs of white-headed vultures and 390 pairs of white-backed vultures remaining in the park (André Botha and EWT).

Vultures are keystone species that play vital roles in maintaining ecosystem health. Their removal and depletion will have a number of cascading negative ecological effects as well as adverse impacts on human health. For example, the precipitous decline in three vulture species on the Indian sub-continent over the last 20 years has resulted in a number of problems emerging due to the vultures no longer being able to fulfil their role of removing the carcasses of dead animals from the environment. A proliferation of feral dogs and a substantial increase in diseases such as rabies have been documented and can be linked directly to this decline. Similar impacts are anticipated in Africa.

The VCF and its partners have been working on anti-poisoning activities, campaigns and programmes in Europe. Recognizing the extent of the problem in Africa, in April 2014, the VCF is co-organising, together with the Junta de Andalucia, a workshop bringing together key European and African experts on this issue.

For more information on this latest poisoning incident, or on South Africa’s vulture conservation programme, please contact andreb@ewt.org.za

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