What’s behind the vulture poisonings in Kruger and Chobe parks?

The Kruger National Park is a place of majestic nature and wildlife. Often it’s a sight of blood and death, which is acceptable when it’s animals hunting. But there’s another, uglier, side to the gore and death and that is a result of poachers killing wildlife for their parts, in particular rhinos with their horns hacked off. 

On Thursday last week, rangers on patrol found another site of death near the fence in the Punda Maria section of the park. About 100 vultures were dead and next to them were the carcasses of a hyena and a buffalo. Rangers suspect the vultures died after feeding from a buffalo carcass that had been laced with poison. 

A few days earlier, 50 vultures were poisoned in Chobe National Park in Botswana.

“Usually, the poison used is a chemical — some kind of pesticide — that’s used for agriculture where farmers hope to increase crops,” said Andre Botha, the manager at the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Vultures for Africa programme.

Many of the vultures had been dismembered — their heads and feet removed. 

“They are often used for their body parts in what we call belief-based use. People use vulture parts for traditional needs, they are associated with clairvoyance. The signs are that this was ordered by someone who wanted these parts,” said Botha. 

This was echoed by Kerri Wolter, the chief executive of Vulpro, a vulture rehabilitation, research and monitoring conservation agency. 

“People believe if they sniff the brain of a vulture, and sleep with a skull under their pillow, they will be able to see into the future and select the right lotto numbers, win a horse race, a gambling game or even pass matric exams, for example. The foot is used around the neck as a lucky charm,” she said.

This is a concern because vultures perform essential ecosystem services. They feed on carcasses of dead and decaying animals. “This service is crucial because they help to prevent the spread of diseases by consuming carcasses quickly. They help keep our environment clean and put nutrients back into our environment through their scavenging role,” said Wolter. 

Bad reputation

Vultures also carry a stigma with them because they are scavengers, eating dead or decaying flesh. This does not do anything to enhance their reputation. Wolter partly blames this on the film industry. 

“Disney and cinematography have portrayed vultures to always be the evil ones, associated with death, dying or something bad happening. We are brought up to believe this as we watch movies and that belief stays with us. People mostly do not like talking about death and how one deals with death and vultures having the niche of scavenging and eating off the dead scares people and, as such, people believe they are dirty, ugly and smelly beings.” 

Like Wolter, Botha believes these superstitions are misplaced and discount the crucial work vultures do cleaning up ecosystems.

Many vulture species on the African continent are either endangered, vulnerable or critically endangered. Worryingly, the African white-backed vultures were the ones that were poisoned in the Kruger Park incident and they are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. 

These poisonings are not new; there have been several incidents over the years. But these most recent ones were large and concerning and are likely to lead the species to rapid decline.

Glyn Maude, of Raptors Botswana, said there could be a ripple effect from both the Kruger and Chobe poisonings that is of concern.

“The problem is that the killings took place during the breeding season, which is usually between June and July. Many of the vultures were probably going to lay eggs soon and had laid eggs already and vultures rear in pairs. This means that it’s very likely we’ll have deaths down the line.”

Botswana

The modus operandi in the vulture deaths in Botswana was quite similar to that in Kruger Park but Maude ruled out whether the attacks were linked saying, “The only link the attacks had was that they happened around the time of a full moon so the attackers could see what they were doing.” 

It’s not uncommon for these poisonings to happen in Botswana, where there have been several incidents over the years. In one case, in Northern Botswana, about 500 vultures were poisoned, involving five species. 

Maude said another reason people kill vultures is because poachers don’t want to attract attention. 

“So if poachers kill an elephant for its tusks, it takes time to saw it off and vultures gathering overhead would alert authorities,” he said.

Managing the problem

Botha said the problem was really tough to address because of the ubiquitous nature of the poisons people use but empowering people working on the ground was essential. 

“Our approach is to engage with local law enforcement, clean scenes and conduct proper investigations. The first thing we need to do is capacitate rangers and those on the ground.”

He said another crucial way to address the issue was community engagement — creating awareness of the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals and teaching people the importance of vultures in the ecosystem. 

Wolter said he believed the people behind the attacks on vultures were exploiting poor people. “It is human greed and perhaps, with low employment, people starving, battling to survive in our harsh financial times, they look for a quick rich scheme. The sangomas know this and will use any means to make money themselves.”

Of the poisoned vultures in the Kruger National Park, not all died. Rangers and conservationists recovered about 27 birds and they were taken to the Moholoholo Animal Rehabilitation Centre near Hoedspruit and they are making a recovery. 

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