A vital link in the circle of life

“Imagine an African sky without a single vulture circling the air or gracefully sweeping down towards some prey. It sounds impossible but it is beginning to be a real probability,” said Mr André Botha, manager of the Birds of Prey Programme at the Endangered Wildlife Trust and co-chairman of the IUCN SSC Vulture Specialist Group.

A recent review has resulted in six vulture species in Africa being uplisted to the category, critically endangered, in November 2015. The review attributes their declining status partly to the impact of widespread poisoning.

Botha spoke to Lowvelder about the ecological importance of vultures after the disastrous poison poaching incident on Saturday February 27 in the Kruger National Park which claimed 110 critically endangered white-backed vultures, two male lions and two black-backed jackals.

“The potential impact of losing so many vultures is felt widely and the consequences thereof cannot be easily overcome in a short time for various reasons,” said Botha.
Prior to 2012, vulture poisonings in southern Africa were mostly mostly related to secondary poisoning where the birds were killed during poorly managed predator control efforts by livestock farmers.

From 2012 to 2014 Botha and a team of researchers, however, documented 11 poaching-related incidents in seven African countries, which collectively killed 155 elephants and
2 044 vultures.

Vulture mortalities associated with ivory poaching has, in the past five years, increased alarmingly and now accounts for one-third of all poisonings recorded since 1970.

African White-backed Vulture_Ad_Flight_Moholoholo Andre Botha
Vultures roam widely when they are not breeding. Botha remarked on how some that were wing-tagged by colleagues in Kimberley were found dead during the tragic poisoning incident in the Caprivi a few years ago when between 400 and 600 vultures were killed. This was more than 900 kilometres from where these birds were marked.

If adult-breeding vultures are killed during the breeding season, chicks are unable to survive on their own.

Vultures are not efficient single parents as duties are equally shared between both adults and it is highly unlikely that a single parent will raise a viable fledgling
on its own.

“A pair of parents breeds one chick a year. It can take up to five years to bring this chick to adulthood,” Botha said.

He also explained that where vulture populations had declined to an unsustainable level, a higher risk of disease outbreak in livestock, wildlife and even people was likely. “Especially in times of drought when more than usual carcasses are found in the veld, we need their specialist skills to ensure the health of an ecosystem,” concurred Botha.

Their feeding behaviour at a carcasses is sadly what often leads to their demise. Vultures are designed and physiologically programmed to be competitive, efficient and fast during feeding time.

A wide range of substances are used for the poisoning of vultures and other wildlife. The off-label use of agrochemicals in particular is a problem and these substances are often removed from their original packaging and sold in variable quantities and repackaged in a different format.

Most of these are widely available in many African countries, are often subject to insufficient controls, and are readily smuggled across borders.

“These products are often sold at informal shops next to roads. Poachers have ready access to these products.”

The African Convention on Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), signed by most countries in the region, prohibits use of poison and poisoned or anaesthetic bait as a method for hunting wildlife.

In accordance with this commitment, IUCN requested governments and environmental authorities across Africa to implement and develop legislation urgently to control the sale, storage, distribution, and restrict the use and disposal of chemicals known to be used in the indiscriminate killing of wildlife.

“However, all agrochemicals cannot simply be banned as they also have a real purpose in terms of food production,” said Botha.

This recent surge in the illegal use of poisons reflects certain weaknesses in the regulations, for which certain control measures were proposed. These were primarily aimed at retail controls.

Botha pointed out that these measures were not enough because poachers already operated well outside of any legal framework.

“African governments require international support in applying more effective law enforcement, punitive sentencing against mass wildlife poisoning and the disposal of obsolete agro-chemicals. Creating greater awareness of the public health threat associated with the consumption of wildlife products acquired by means of poisoning is also essential,” Botha concluded.

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