Remember the African Vulture Poisoning? Researchers Said It Poses a Global Threat

Some time ago, I told you the fact about mass poisoning that happened to African Vultures. We thought that was bad, and it’s true that it’s bad. Well, researchers have just confirmed that.

As we all know, vultures act as nature’s most critical scavengers, working as ecosystem garbage disposals and disinfectors to maintain animal, environmental, and human health alike.

With global vulture populations declining, thanks to the poisoning, diseases that have previously been under control can potentially reemerge as threats and contribute to the spread of global disease, while also negatively impacting overall biodiversity.

To address rapidly declining African vulture populations, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNCD) has gathered an interdisciplinary and international group of scientists with the goal of saving Africa’s vultures.

The illegal vulture poisonings in Southern Africa that we know of is seen from a conservation and criminology perspective. Scientists recommend a more coordinated and holistic approach to regulation, education, and enforcement to engage local communities and maximize conservation efforts.

“This work is vital,” says William Bowerman, chair of Environmental Science and Technology in the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources (AGNR) at UMD (University of Maryland) and a lead organizer for the SESYNC effort.

“We could lose African vultures completely in just a few years. But we have faculty from across UMD and Cornell University, Birdlife International, the Peregrine Fund, Endangered Wildlife Trust, and many others working to solve this international problem collaboratively,”

“We have issues of chemical poisoning, but also lead and other contaminants, habitat loss, poaching and vulture trade for belief and medicinal use, and other factors that contribute to why populations are declining so quickly and why we need so many different experts.”

The team at UMD published a new paper focusing on vulture poisoning in Global Ecology and Conservation. Meredith Gore, currently with Michigan State University, is the lead author on this paper and will officially join UMD in August.

Gore said, “I call myself a conservation social scientist—humans are my species, and my habit is to collaborate. When I was invited to work on this SESYNC project, I had no previous exposure to vultures, but I do a lot of work in Africa, and the human factors in vulture conservation are very complex and dynamic. As a group of experts, we could really leverage our diversity to think about this problem in a different way.”

Criminology x conservation

white headed vulture by Dominic Sherony Wikimedia Commons
white headed vulture by Dominic Sherony Wikimedia Commons

Getting factual information like this paper are common practices in both criminology and conservation. But these thought processes had never before been combined and applied in the context of African vulture poisoning to try to make recommendations and ultimately improve control and conservation efforts.

“The use of a criminology framework is relatively new for conservation. Conservation policies have long focused on identifying direct causes for species loss, culminating in the creation of protected areas for species, as well as policies with incentives and punishments,” said Jen Shaffer, assistant professor in Anthropology, BSOS.

“More recently, there have been efforts to assess and address indirect or underlying causes of species loss, such as poverty, food insecurity, and lack of access to necessary resources,”

“In our research, we captured both direct and indirect causes of African vulture loss, but extended this work to identify a wider range of cultural and physical factors in the environment that promote poisoning,”

“This allowed our group to identify specific tactics that would discourage people from participating in the crime of vulture poisoning,” she went on.

Jennifer Mullinax, assistant professor in Environmental Science and Technology from AGNR added, “We formulated a range of strategies and tactics to prevent poisoning from occurring in the first place, along with limiting the impacts if a poisoning event occurred,”

“For example, we suggested an education campaign on the human health risks from the common poisons used, and a Wildlife Poisoning Response Planning and Training intervention,”

“This effort is a great example of having a large stakeholder group, including local constituents, come up with simple to complex ideas that could be implemented by local agencies or non-profits to directly impact vulture poisoning.”

Intentional and unintentional poisoning 

lappet-faced vulture (left) and white-backed vulture (right). photo by Charles J Sharp Wikimedia Commons
lappet-faced vulture (left) and white-backed vulture (right). photo by Charles J Sharp Wikimedia Commons

According to Gore, many people, particularly locals, don’t always see poisoning as a crime, so this situation needs more coordinated education and training efforts. Poisonings like these are usually done to protect livestock from larger animals and predators, with the poison not even intended for vultures.

Nevertheless, intentional poisoning by poachers can also be a factor.

“Bringing vulture population declines from intentional poisoning to light in the scientific community raises a heightened awareness of poaching, not only from the targeted animals (such as elephants) that are killed, but the secondary impact on other species such as vultures, and how all that impacts the socio-ecological-economic health of many peoples and nations,” said Reggie Harrell, professor in Environmental Science and Technology, AGNR.

Since vulture poisonings in Africa is rather complicated, combining criminology with community engagement is important to solve this issue. “Criminology uses situational crime prevention to prevent terrorist attacks on airplanes and riots in sports stadiums,”

“We used those same situational crime techniques and applied them to vulture conservation. However, we added an additional dimension—engaging communities—based on participatory action research and conservation, which we know and do really well at land grant universities,” said Gore.

Solving the problem through local communities 

hooded vulture by peterichman Wikimedia Commons
hooded vulture by peterichman Wikimedia Commons

Gore and the team emphasized the importance of this information being adapted to local communities and used on the ground for real change.

“At the end of the day, we’re just experts. That’s important, but we look at problems differently than local people do, so the work that we did needs to be interpreted on the ground in a local context,” Gore added.

“From an anthropological perspective, I think that our findings underscore how sustainable strategies to reduce and eliminate wildlife crime require local cultural context and community involvement. Our work also serves as a model of how the problem of African vulture poisoning can be addressed elsewhere on the African continent,” said Shaffer.

“This is a really serious problem. Vultures are ecosystem engineers, and as their population decreases, the second order impacts can harm ecosystems and people. It’s urgent, dynamic, and also really complex,”

“Why should people in Maryland care about what’s happening in Southern Africa? Because it all relates to environmental health. And socio-environmental health relates to socio-environmental security. And global security is national security as the [COVID-19] pandemic has shown us. What starts someplace else impacts us here in the U.S. and in Maryland,” said Gore.



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