Poisoning threatens survival of vultures

Hooded vulture in Ethiopia. [Courtesy, AP]

As the world marks the International Vulture Awareness Day today, poisoning as a result of retaliatory attacks has been cited as the main driver of disappearing vulture populations in the country.

Statistics from BirdLife International indicate that poisoning accounts for 61 per cent of vulture deaths in Africa.

Currently, seven out of 11 vulture species are on the verge of extinction, having recorded declines of between 70 and 97 per cent in the last 50 years, according to the organisation.

The statistics indicate that Ruppell’s and White-headed vulture species are the most affected, having experienced declines of 97 per cent and 96 per cent, respectively, in the last 50 years.

Egyptian vulture populations have reduced by 92 per cent while White-backed vultures have reduced by 90 per cent during the same period.

Hooded, Lappet-faced and Bearded vultures have also reduced to 83 per cent and 70 per cent, respectively.

Vincent Otieno, the Vulture Conservation Programme Coordinator at Nature Kenya, says despite the roles vultures play in the environment, poisoning remains a key threat.

He says vultures are not often directly poisoned but are usually caught up in deadly retaliatory attacks where farmers and pastoralist communities poison carcasses.

“In such incidents, you find vultures, being the scavengers they are, feeding on the carcasses that have been poisoned while targeting the prey and mostly die in large numbers,” Otieno said.

Vultures act as nature’s undertaker crew that clears up carcasses within the environment, preventing the spread of diseases to humans.

He said such cases have been rampant in areas bordering conservancies where human-wildlife conflicts are rife.

Vultures act as nature’s undertaker crew?. [Courtesy]

Narok, Kajiado, Amboseli and Laikipia have been mapped as hotspots.

“Vulture poisoning might be intentional and sometimes unintentional. In most cases, it is unintentional because they are not the target but often fall prey.

"Intentional poisoning of the birds is often done by poachers who try to get rid of them before they commit the crime," he said.

According to Salisha Chandra, the manager at BirdLife Africa’s Vulture Conservation, while poisoning is the biggest threat to vultures in Africa, vultures are also threatened by belief-based use that accounts for 29 per cent of their declines.

Belief-based use of vultures, she says, is common in West African countries.

Collision and electrocution of vultures with power lines account for nine per cent.

In Kenya, cases of electrocution and collision have been recorded in places like Hell's Gate National Park.

“Vultures are the highest declining species in the bird world and regenerating their populations is the greatest challenge.

"All vulture species in Africa have experienced declines of between 70 per cent and 97 per cent,” said Ms Chandra.

A white-backed vulture (Gyps Africanus) on a branch, South Africa. [Courtesy]

Data from Africa Wildlife Poisoning Database reveals that vultures are the most poisoned wildlife species in Kenya since 2000. Between 2000 and 2020, 257 poisoning cases involving the death of 8,172 individual wildlife species were recorded, among them 775 vultures.

Vultures accounted for 49 per cent of all the poisoning incidents during the same period.

While poisoning remains a key threat to vulture survival in Kenya, intentions, including the development of rapid response mechanisms to reduce the mortality of vultures when an incident happens, has been rolled out by Nature Kenya in Maasai Mara.

In Mara, predator-proof bomas have also been introduced to reduce cases of human-wildlife conflict so as to reduce cases of poisoning. In Laikipia, predator-proof bomas have also been built to stem the conflicts.