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Despite vulture poisonings in Africa, conservationists find hope

A poisoned immature White-backed Vulture. Photo by Munir Virani/The Peregrine Fund
A poisoned immature White-backed Vulture. Photo by Munir Virani/The Peregrine Fund

The survival of critically endangered vultures and other endangered species in Kenya is threatened as a result of illegal wildlife poisoning, highlighted by an incident reported in the country recently. Prolonged and worsening poisoning activities in the country targeting predators means vultures are facing a severe threat of extinction.

Birdlife International, The Peregrine Fund, Nature Kenya, and the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust are deeply concerned by a poisoning incident that has killed nearly 40 critically endangered vultures adjacent to the world-famous Maasai Mara National Reserve. Retaliatory poisoning usually occurs when livestock is attacked by predators such as lions, hyenas, and leopards. Livestock farmers resort to lacing their dead livestock with easily accessible agro-chemicals with the intention to kill predators but vultures that scavenge gregariously on dead animals succumb to the poison and hundreds die as a result.

The dead vultures were reported in conservancies bordering areas north of the Maasai Mara. These conservancies have been instrumental in creating habitat for wildlife such as carnivores, while also leading to increased tourism potential and income for local Maasai communities.

Since February 9, about 40 dead vultures have been observed over a two-week period near the village of Kishermoruak, about 30 km northeast of Maasai Mara’s Sekenani Gate. Initial findings suggest that the vultures consumed a poisoned livestock carcass outside the conservancies and flew in and were found dead inside some of the conservancies. So far, a point source of the Maasai Mara poisoning has not yet been identified.

The vulture deaths coincide with a spate of other retaliatory poisonings across Africa:

  • On February 15, six lions and 72 vultures were reported to have been poisoned in the Ruaha-Katavi landscape of Tanzania;
  • On February 25, 103 vultures in Mbashene, Southern Mozambique, were killed after feeding on a poisoned elephant carcass, and 50 more were poisoned in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique.

“Our greatest challenge is that vultures travel vast distances and can transcend borders into Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Sudan,” said Eric Ole Reson, program coordinator of the Maasai Mara Wildlife and Conservancies Association. “But poisoning is happening at our doorstep, and we are losing our country’s natural heritage at an alarming rate. The vulture problem is not really a vulture problem but a predator problem, and a handful of people are killing the messenger (vultures) which does not bode well for a healthy environment. We need to appreciate the vital ecosystem services that vultures provide — healthy vulture populations mean healthy people, wildlife and livestock.”

Munir Virani, director of global conservation strategy of The Peregrine Fund, adds: “People are poisoning because they have grievances, and we are listening to them to help reduce poisoning levels and reverse the declining trend of vulture populations. By identifying key poisoning hotspots, we are focusing our conservation interventions in those areas to create champions and significantly reduce poisoning to zero levels. This requires a drastic change in people’s attitudes and behavior and will take time.”

Vulture populations globally are declining rapidly primarily due to intentional and unintentional poisoning but also from habitat loss, energy expansion, and lack of food and as a result are considered one of the most threatened groups of animals in the world. Africa has eleven species, of which six are found nowhere else. Six of the eight species that occur in Kenya are highly threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List of threatened species. This means that without conservation intervention, these species have very little chance of survival and may possibly go extinct within our lifetimes.

“The positive spin on this national disaster — that is illegal wildlife poisoning — is that there is heightened awareness from within the Maasai communities,” said Dr. Paul Matiku, executive director of Nature Kenya. “Rangers and ground staff at the conservancies are actively finding dead vultures and reporting them but most importantly burning the carcasses, which would otherwise lead to secondary poisoning. This would not have happened a decade ago when many poisoning cases would go unreported. We are providing people on the ground with the knowledge and tools to respond to poisoning events.”

Masumi Gudka, vulture coordinator for Birdlife International, notes: “Illegal wildlife poisoning is a huge problem for the future survival of vultures and carnivores across the continent. It is very encouraging to see a strong network of people at all levels working together to respond to a poisoning incident and help create awareness about the value of vultures for the Maasai Mara and beyond.”

Thanks to The Peregrine Fund for providing this news.


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