In July of last year, roughly 500 vultures died after they ate the pesticide-laced carcass of an elephant that had been killed by poachers in Namibia. It was an example of one poaching technique in Africa that seems to be on the rise: the poisoning of vultures so that authorities won’t be alerted to the location of the crime.
The overhead circling of vultures has long been used to locate lost or dead livestock. In the same way, vultures help law enforcement officers zero in on poachers.
With their keen eyesight and distinctive vantage point, vultures can locate an elephant carcass within 30 minutes of the animal’s death. It can take 45 to 70 minutes for the most skilled poachers to hack off two elephant tusks, and when vultures gather overhead rangers can get that much closer to apprehending the perpetrators. By poisoning a carcass and killing vultures en masse, poachers are trying to ensure that next time around there will be fewer of them to contend with.
Vulture conservationists began to take particular note of this development in July 2012, when an elephant was poached in Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe and 191 vultures were found scattered around the carcass, poisoned. Since then, six more cases of these poisonings have been reported. The most recent was in May. All told, some 1,700 vultures died.
If vultures were merely the ancillary damage of poaching, it would be bad enough. But these birds are also dying from eating the poisoned carcasses of livestock that have been baited to kill predators, like lions, leopards and hyenas, in retaliation for killing livestock. Vultures, too, are being poisoned for their body parts, which are used in traditional medicine and for good luck.
What’s worrisome is that of the nine main species of vultures in Africa, four are endangered and three more are listed as vulnerable by the authoritative Red List of Threatened Species maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Vultures are among the longest-living birds, surviving up to 30 years in the wild. They reproduce very slowly, reaching sexual maturity at 5 to 7 years of age on average. They generally produce one chick every one to two years. This reproductive strategy worked well, until the poisonings.
While the use of traditional poisons to kill animals is age-old, the intensive use of highly toxic agricultural pesticides is not. Ask anyone involved in anti-poaching efforts in Africa and they will tell you that one method of choice for killing wildlife today is agricultural pesticides because they are available, cheap, effective and silent.
Elephants and rhinos are also being killed by the same poisons that poachers use to kill vultures. These pesticides are poured into water holes and onto salt licks, sprinkled over pachyderm delicacies such as watermelons or pumpkins, or used to coat the tips of arrows. The carcasses of these huge animals can then poison the next round of consumers, the scavengers.
The pesticides most commonly used include carbofuran and aldicarb. In the United States, Canada and the European Union, those pesticides are either banned, or their use is severely restricted. But throughout rural Africa you can walk into many of the numerous small shops selling agricultural products and walk out with enough poison to kill an elephant in perhaps 30 minutes, or a human being more quickly.
While Africa’s vultures have become increasingly entangled in the ivory and rhino horn trade, the commercialization of the trade in vulture parts — in particular their heads, which are valued as fetishes — is worsening the problem. Vultures are associated with clairvoyance. Businessmen sometimes sprinkle a powder of vulture parts around their businesses to improve profits. These powders can also be blown into the air to recall a lost lover.
This trade, especially in West African countries, South Africa and Tanzania, has led to an increase in vulture killings, though it is difficult to come up with a hard number. In particular, the demand for vulture parts in Nigeria is pushing many species of the bird toward extinction there.
Scientists from The Peregrine Fund and their collaborators throughout Africa used to spend their time studying the unique habits of vultures; these days they monitor their imminent extinction. These birds play an important role in the ecosystems where they live. At first glance, many might consider vultures a “disgusting bird,” as Darwin did. But by eating carrion, vultures eliminate rotting carcasses that might otherwise become factories for diseases, and which could have consequences for human health.
More stringent regulation and control over the distribution of pesticides, and prosecutions for those who use pesticides to poison wildlife, are critical in many African nations if this problem is to be brought under control. Money and expertise to fight the new wave of elephant and rhino poaching has been pledged by Western nations. But if we don’t also devote effort and money to saving Africa’s vultures, can we really expect that the war on poaching will ever be won?
Darcy L. Ogada, a wildlife biologist, is assistant director of Africa programs for The Peregrine Fund, which focuses on protecting birds of prey worldwide.