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The silent killer strikes again – at least 5 cinereous vultures (Aegypius monachus) and 3 griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) poisoned in eastern Turkey

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On the 16th January Yusuf Yilmaz from Igdir province, in Eastern Turkey, close to the Armenian border, saw a group of vultures lying on the floor not very far away from the garbage dump in Tuzluca. When he approached the birds, he came across a gruesome spectacle – 4 black vultures and 2 griffons were dead or dying, scattered in a small area, together with the rest of what looked like a dog or fox – which had probably been baited with poison – see video below. Yusuf called his son Ahmet Yilmaz, a local nature photographer, who then alerted the local National Parks office (DKMP), who immediately dispatched a team to the site.

In less than one hour, the dying vultures were brought to the wildlife rehabilitation centre run by KuzeyDoğa (the Turkish NGO that the VCF is collaborating with on Egyptian vulture research), at the local Kafkas University. There, veterinarians tried to save the birds, but could only bring one griffon back to life, through administering serum and injecting atropine to neutralize any potential poison.

Necropsies were done at the local university on two of the dead vultures, while the three other corpses were frozen so that they could be sent to a national reference laboratory in the capital Ankara. Experts from the VCF have been advising and helping in all this process.

While full results of the necropsies and analyses are still to appear, the VCF experts suggest that we are faced with yet another case of poisoning, probably using carbamate or an organophosphate. These are colinesterase inhibitors, fast acting poisons that kill almost instantly – the fact that the birds were found belly-down, with folded wings, usually suggests a fast-acting poison. The other possibility could be poisoning by the ingestion of a strong rodenticide.

In cases like this, it is crucial to find the birds as soon as possible, isolate the area, have the birds collected by expert staff, that are then able to collect samples from the vomit, or from the mouth, oesophagus, stomach, crop and intestines from the birds to try to identify the poisoning agent. Also, a thorough search on talons/palate and tongue could yield rests of the poisoned bait. Identifying the poisoning compound is essential to determine likely root causes of poisoning, and also to investigate the potential culprits.

The area should also be thoroughly searched, to identify and eliminate any rests of the poisoned baits. In this case, unfortunately some bait must have been left on the site, because this weekend, one week after the accident, a moribund cinereous vulture and one more dead griffon have been found. The cinerous vulture was again saved by a combination of local awareness and fast action by the Yilmaz family, DKMP, and KuzeyDoğa team.

Poison is the single biggest threat to vultures worldwide. Usually poison is directed not at these birds, but at carnivores like wolves or foxes, but ends up killing scores of vultures and other scavengers that feed on the poisoned baits. Poisoning of wildlife is illegal, indiscriminate and extremely harmful. The VCF has been working with veterinarians, NGOs, farmers, local administrations, law enforcement agencies and governments to fight against this threat. Public awareness, participatory solutions, adequate research and diagnostic and law enforcement are key to prevent poisoning.

The VCF would like to thank Yusuf and Ahmet Yilmaz, for their prompt alert, as well as the staff and management of the Turkey’s Nature Conservation and National Parks agency (DKMP), for their immediate and very professional response. Also, the vets and staff from KuzeyDoğa and Kafkas University have done their utmost to save birds. Most poisoning incidents go unnoticed and/or are not documented. In this case, the immediate reaction and excellent collaboration between all these players has resulted in the saving of a griffon and a cinereous vulture, and in the establishment of proper procedures that should, in the end, lead to the full characterisation  of this sad and dramatic poisoning incident

(Video by yusuf Yilmaz, photos by KuzeyDoğa)

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