A GRISLY scene greeted elephant researcher Joseph Wahome on January 6, 2016. Four cows in Laikipia, Northern Kenya, had been attacked by lions and in retaliation herders then drove the rest of the livestock away, but poisoned the carcasses of three cows. No lions or hyenas were reported poisoned. However, at the immediate scene many vultures were found to be dead and dying.
According to a report by the Peregrine Fund, it was estimated that 50-100 of the vultures could have been poisoned and died away from the immediate scene. The casualties included 32 critically endangered White-backed and Rüppell’s Vultures.
Poisoned White-backed and Ruppell’s vultures. (Photo/J Wahome)
Just 13 days after the Kenya incident, another report came through from IUCN Vulture Specialist Group in Zimbabwe indicating that, along with a lion, 41 white-backed vultures had been poisoned - none survived. The suspect is a communal cattle farmer.
Vultures provide critical ecosystem services, which includes those that have a very big impact on people. One example of this is in Asia where an Asian Vulture Crisis has resulted in a parallel increase in feral dog populations, which are now the major consumers of carcasses in urban areas in India, the main reservoir of diseases such as rabies.
The growth in feral dog numbers has, and will continue to, contribute to the risks associated with rabies transmission, both in Africa and in Asia. It is estimated that this has added $34 billion to healthcare costs in India between 1993 and 2006.
Despite this, Africa’s vulture populations are facing a worrying decline so that nearly all species are now highly threatened and Africa is ill-equipped to replace the ecosystem services provided by vultures once they are lost.
According to BirdLife, populations have declined at devastating rates of between 70% and 97% (92% or worse in 5 species) over a period of three generations.
Poisoned White-backed Vulture (Photo/D Ogada)
The most significant contributors to this decline are poisoning - which occurs when carcasses are baited with highly toxic agricultural pesticides to kill carnivores such as lions, hyenas or to control feral dog populations - and trade in traditional medicines. In combination these threats account for 90% of reported deaths.
BirdLife International, with the support of its extensive partnership, including Nature Kenya, BirdLife Botswana and BirdLife Zimbabwe, and collaborators like The Peregrine Fund and the IUCN Vulture Specialist Group, is looking to address this regional conservation issue.
In a recent project, funded by Fondation Segre, it will help initiate action on the ground in Chobe District in Botswana, Masai Mara National Reserve and its surroundings in Kenya, and Hwange National Park and its surroundings in Zimbabwe. Because the threats are compounded by negative perceptions of the birds, and low levels of awareness of the problem, the project is looking to eliminate all vulture threats and reversing the population decline by tying together the needs of people, livestock, and wildlife, including vultures.
Nature Kenya, Africa’s oldest environmental society, has outlined several solutions that they are looking to implement.
Firstly, engaging with law enforcement agencies to encourage the enforcement of laws and implement stricter regulations on use of agro-chemicals and other substances used as poisons. These toxic chemicals are not manufactured to kill wildlife and the killing of an endangered species should lead to high court fines or life imprisonment.
However the Kenyan government, specifically the Pest Control Products Board (PCPB), currently does not seem to be tuned to protect wildlife and they need to become aware of this role.
Secondly, to influence policies towards vulture protection alongside other wildlife and, thirdly, to engage local communities in the surveillance, reporting and protection of vultures. A lot of awareness creation is needed.
The group does not believe this will be an easy task and says that there are significant barriers in the way. For example, there is yet no clear system for compensating local people whose livestock is destroyed or killed by wildlife - perpetuating the poisoning cycle.
Nonetheless, they are looking to take immediate action to ensure that these cleaners of the environment to continue playing this invaluable ecological role.