By Tinashe Mushakavanhu
African vultures,the silent victims of wildlife poaching, are now nearing extinction in some regions, according to new research by members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) vulture specialist group.
Seven African species have declined at a rate of 80% or more over three generations—a result of poachers poisoning the carcasses of poached elephants and rhinos.
Poaching is now a global threat to ecosystems and biodiversity. The rapid increase in elephant and rhino poaching throughout Africa has led to a substantial increase in vulture mortality. Poachers poison carcasses to eliminate vultures, whose overhead circling might signal their presence or the carcasses they leave behind.
Beckie Garbett, a conservationist in Botswana, explains: “As soon as an animal is on the ground, vultures start circling in the sky. Sometimes there can be 200 birds in the sky. This may draw the attention of anti-poaching patrols and rangers.”
In order to avoid detection, poachers deliberately poison carcasses so that vultures can stop directing attention to their illegal activities.
Here is the math: Vultures can locate an elephant carcass within 30 minutes of the animal’s death. It usually takes 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.
Poisoning by poachers has been identified as by far the biggest threat to Africa’s wildlife and ecological systems. But many countries don’t have appropriate legislation in place to control or prevent the indiscriminate use of poisons or pesticides. Penalties are often minimal, and do not act as a deterrent to the perpetrators.
In recent years prosecution of wildlife poisoning incidents involving vultures has taken place in South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. But the majority of poisonings go unreported.
Darcy Ogada, one of the lead researchers who contributed to the report, and an associate director at The Pregrine Fund in Nairobi, says there are no specific policies to protect vultures in Africa: “The most significant policy issue is surely the tightening and enforcement of existing regulations in regards to the easy accessibility of highly toxic pesticides (e.g. carbofuran, aldicarb) and other poisons (notably cyanide and strychnine in certain countries).”
Many of these pesticides have been banned or their use severely restricted in countries such as Canada, the UK and the US—but they remain legal for use in Africa. If this problem is to be brought under control, there need to be stringent regulation and control over the distribution of pesticides.
In principle, it is illegal to hunt wildlife using poisons in 38 African countries. But imposing the rules is difficult because of a lack of political will, lax regulation, corrupt officials, and poor enforcement systems. North African countries (Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia) have the weakest legislation against wildlife poisoning.
Vultures are part of the natural waste management system. Not only do they help to reduce disease transmissions, but they also dispose of organic waste in Africa’s towns and cities.
“Basically, when you lose vultures, you often get more ‘undesirable’ scavengers at carcasses (e.g. feral dogs, rats) and because they are not highly adapted scavengers, as vultures are, these undesirables have been linked to an increase in rabies transmission,” says Ogada.
And by picking clean the carcasses of dead animals, vultures indirectly keep the numbers of feral dogs and rodents in check. In turn, this reduces transmission rates for diseases like rabies. In India, it has been estimated that the loss of vultures has cost the nation $34 billion due to increased healthcare costs associated with rabies. The cost for fragile African economies could be more devastating.