Poisoning is the major threat affecting vultures worldwide – and the main cause of past and present vulture extinctions, at local and regional level. Poisoning has many different forms and contexts, and also has a variable distribution – while endemic in some regions (e.g. parts of the Mediterranean), other areas had been relatively free from this human-induced threat, including some areas of Africa.
Recently, extremely worrying reports originating in that continent suggests the situation changed for the worse – with some of the worst poison-induced mass mortalities of vultures ever recorded. In one of the most recent events, at least 600 (six hundred) vultures are known to have died last July in Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park in the Caprivi Strip (now renamed the Zambezi region).
Apparently these mass poisoning incidents are often related to elephant poaching – which continues at record levels throughout Africa. It seems that in some regions it has now become common practice for poachers lace the discarded elephant carcass (after extracting the ivory tusks) with cheap agricultural poisons to kill vultures in mass, because these birds circling in the sky soon after the poaching incident alert wildlife authorities to the location. By killing them, poachers aim to escape detection and continue to operate in the same area.
Africa is home to 11 species of vulture, and almost all are declining very fast, and some are threatened with extinction. Research in West Africa, for example, has sown that vulture numbers have declined by 40% over the past 30 years, with some species registering a decline of up to 85% (Rueppel’s vulture).
There has been at least 4 such mass killings only this year, each involving hundreds of vultures, and the practice seems to be spreading, with incidents reported from Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia. Most of the birds killed in the recent incident in Namibia are African White-backed Vultures, currently listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Also, these poisoning events have a wide geographic impact – in the incident in Bwabwata National Park, two of the dead birds had been tagged originally in the Kimberley area of South Africa – almost 1 000km away. The use of poison also negatively affects a number of other large raptors, as well as lions, hyenas, jackals and other carnivores.
Vultures are long-lived birds that reproduce very slowly, producing an average of one chick every other year. These mortality rates are well above what is sustainable, and is worsening the vulture decline across Africa, with serious ecological and human health consequences in the longer term. The precipitous decline in three vulture species on the Indian sub-continent over the last 20 years has caused several problems, including a proliferation of feral dogs and a substantial increase in diseases such as rabies.
The VCF, together with some of our partners, has been working hard to eliminate poison in Europe. It is a long, hard, expensive task, but there is some good-practice and expertise available, that should be applied immediately in Africa.
The first step is to review legislation – and implement processes that enable wildlife authorities to identify and follow up such cases, including the identification of the poisons used. Penalties should also be increased to act as a deterrent– experience from Europe shows that only when custodial sentences were introduced did locals take the issue seriously.
Vultures are extremely useful in any ecosystem, as they are nature’s most efficient and effective clean-up crew. Their place is in the African skies – help us keep them there.
Recently the VCF has been supporting colleagues in Kenya to develop a forensic monitoring system to counter poisoning of wildlife in the country. Click here for some details. If you feel strongly about the poisoning of African vultures, and want to to do somethign about it, please send us a donation, and we will send the money to Kenya to continue to support this work.
Please send your donations to the following bank account (marked Africa Vultures). Many thanks!
Name: Stichting VCF
Bank name: Triodos Bank nv
IBAN: NL33 TRIO 0390 3553 80