Vulture is a bird which we usually associate with something not positive. Well, in figurative or literary terms, that might turn out to be something interesting. However, in reality, vultures are important for the environment. Sadly, this species has been poisoned and the result is absolutely worrying.
When rangers patrolling the Ol Kinyei Conservancy in Kenya found a dead hyena and nearly a dozen vultures splayed out on the ground, they immediately knew that the vultures had been poisoned. A few of the birds still showed signs of life, though they were weak.
Out of eleven vulture species in Africa, seven are considered critically endangered or endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. According to a 2015 study by researchers from various universities and nonprofits, including the Peregrine Fund, eight species of African vultures have declined by an average of 62%.
Additionally, the study found that more than 60% of reported vulture deaths were a result of poisoning. Simon Thomsett of the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust, a raptor rescue and rehabilitation organization in the country’s Rift Valley, said, “This is a full-blown crisis.”
Quick and collaborative response teams like Thomsett’s help mitigate some of the damage. Sadly, there are still vulture poisoning happening, and conservation groups working to protect vultures remain deeply concerned about how to deter poisoning in the first place.
There are two categories of vulture poisoning in Africa. In southern Africa mainly, poachers will lace dead elephants and rhinos with poison to intentionally kill vultures with the intention to give park rangers a warning to their illegal activities. In one case, more than 530 endangered vultures died after feeding on a poisoned elephant in Botswana.
The other one is more often collateral damage in battles between humans and predators. In eastern Africa, herders who lose livestock to lions, hyenas, and other carnivores will sometimes sprinkle toxic pesticides over the felled animals’ carcasses in retaliation. Indeed, poison kills the predator, but vultures who took the chance to fill their hungry bellies were killed as well.
Thomsett said that as Kenya’s human population has grown, the Masai Mara has become a particular hotspot for revenge poisonings. Cottar’s Wildlife Conservation Trust, which manages the Olderkesi Community Wildlife Conservancy in the Masai Mara, estimates they occur every other month.
When we think of the second category, the problem is quite challenging to solve. Sure, we can just tell the herders to not poison felled animals. However, we don’t live the life they live, and they might not know that what they’ve done has made a big, negative impact on the environment.
I think education is key here, although we don’t know how long it takes for them to fully understand the problem so that retaliation poisoning stops completely. What I fear is that once they get the gist of it, it will be too late for the vultures to be saved.
The importance of vultures
I mentioned before that vultures are something we don’t normally associate with something nice. I mean, physically, their dramatically hooked beaks and sparsely feathered heads and necks, and their bloody faces after eating carcass, makes them quite unlikeable. Because let’s face it, humans like to look at things that are pleasing to the eyes.
Additionally, their diet, which consists of devouring recently deceased animals, doesn’t earn them much affection either. Ralph Buij, the Peregrine Fund’s Africa Program Director, stated that these facts makes vultures a more difficult bunch to protect than photogenic species like elephants and lions
However, as the only terrestrial vertebrates that can support themselves through scavenging, vultures are critical to the health of the African ecosystem. They often arrive within half an hour of an animal’s death and they can eat more than two pounds of meat in a minute.
An interesting fact about vultures is that their stomachs are highly acidic, which allow them to safely digest sick animals as well as healthy ones, reducing the chance that diseases like anthrax, tuberculosis, and rabies will spread to other wildlife or humans.
Conservationists point to India as a cautionary tale for what can happen when vultures disappear from the skies. In the 1990s, researchers noticed a startling drop in vulture populations.
Eventually, they linked the disappearance to diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug that herders were using to treat pain in ailing cows, which are considered sacred in Hindu culture. Once the cows passed away, the vultures would feast on them, ingest diclofenac, and die.
In 2006, India, Pakistan, and Nepal banned the drug for veterinary purposes, but by then the populations of India’s most common vultures, which are white-rumped, long-billed, and slender-billed vultures, had already plummeted by more than 96 percent.
The consequences for humans were severe. A 2008 study found that the decrease in vultures correlated with a spike in the number of feral dogs, which no longer had to compete with vultures for food. That surge led to an increase in dog bites, which in turn resulted in an estimated 48,000 human deaths from rabies.
As I said before, education (or a government ban in this case) is key to stopping India’s case from happening. But the possibility of being too late can happen as well, since people can be difficult to cooperate with. And if this goes on, what happened in India might also happen in Africa, and it will definitely create chaos in the ecosystem and the environment.
Efforts to rescue vultures
Thankfully, there’s still hope. In order to prevent disaster from happening, conservation groups working in Kenya are scrambling to respond to every poisoning event as quickly as possible.
In the first story in Ol Kinyei, two endangered lappet-faced and four critically endangered Rüppell’s vultures died. It’s sad, but rescue team managed to save two Rüppell’s vultures, one lappet-faced vulture, and one critically endangered white-backed vulture. And last November, one revived female Rüppell’s vulture was released back to the skies wearing a GPS tracker.
Rescuing vultures is one thing, however the perfect solution is to stop the poisonings in the first place. In January, the government amended the 2013 Kenya Wildlife Act to make wildlife poisoning a standalone crime punishable by a fine of five million Kenyan shillings (about $50,000) and/or five years in prison.
That sounds nice, but poachers and other people can be elusive. Almost a year later, there has yet to be a single prosecution.