How retaliatory poisoning rapidly drives vultures, predators to extinction

A picture of sheep killed by Wildlife at Sekenani in Maasai Mara. [Courtesy, Standard]

Viewed from Ol-olchura Village in Sekenani Location after a night of heavy rains, the vast plains of world-famous Maasai Mara National Reserve in Narok County is nothing short of breath-taking

The warm morning sun, the smell of fresh dung, and the glitter of morning dew on the grass against the backdrop a group of some morans chatting beside a herd of cattle lazily chewing cud completes the mosaic of serenity.

Ol-olchura, is sandwiched between Maasai Mara to the west and Nashulai and Mara Naboisho conservancies.

“The Mara is beautiful, the vast plains awe visitors just like the smell of cow dung and milk. There are vast fields to graze but that does not mean you can snore the night away, you have to keep vigil,” says Dickson Ole Kasoe.

Ole Kasoe knows too well the good and the ugly side of the Mara. He is a freelance tour guide registered under Maasai Mara Tour Guides Association that brings together more than 2,000 local guides.

He knows the smell of blood from a sheep or cow mauled by a predator. He also knows how it feels to forego sleep to keep the predators away.

“It is a delicate balance," he says. "We survive on tourism because of the wildlife but then we are also pastoralists who entirely depend on our herds.”

While the rainy season might be a blessing for the Mara, in Ol-olchura, it is a curse, one that converts the picturesque plans into killing fields for prey and predators.

Costly retaliation

The predators strike on the herder's cattle, goats and sheep. The herders retaliate by poisoning the carcasses.

“In some instances, pastoralists can lose up to 200 sheep in one night and up to three instances of attack in a week, driving the owners to resort to poisoning,” says Nelson Leseiyu

Then the hunter becomes the hunted. The cascading effects of poisoning, not only kills scores of lions, cheetahs and hyenas but also the plains' undertakers-vultures.

Such is the raging human-wildlife conflict that agro-vets are making a killing selling poisons.

“They are just common insecticides, herbicides and fungicides but their effect on the delicate ecosystem is devastating," says Leseiyu.

Lack of fences to separate the conservancies, reserves and villages in the wider Sekenani, coupled up with poorly- constructed cattle sheds do not make matters any better.

The herders say the bureaucracy of processing compensation for livestock killed by the predators of the Mara makes poisoning the easier option.

“In Sekenani, cases of human-wildlife conflicts are intense. In a month, I sign several compensation forms mostly on loss of livestock,” says Sekenani Chief Moses Ole Kasoi.

But the poison kills more than the predators it is meant to kill. 

“A single carcass can kill up to 500 vultures," says Ole Kasoi.

Vultures play a critical role in the expansive Mara ecosystem. They are the undertakers of the wilds, cleaning carcasses that left to rot in the open plains; would become breeding grounds for highly dangerous germs.

Of the eight species of vultures in Kenya, four (White-backed, White-headed, Hooded and Rüppell’s) are critically endangered, two- Egyptian and Lappet-faced, are classified as endangered, one (Bearded Vulture) is near threatened and Palm Nut Vulture is classified as the least affected.

According to Darcy Ogada, a researcher at Peregrine Fund, an international organisation that conserves threatened and endangered birds of prey, the biggest threat to vultures in Kenya is poisoning.

“In Kenya poisoning is mostly unintended and is as a result of retaliation against predators.  When a pastoralist or farmer loses livestock to a predator they sometimes lace the remaining carcass with a highly toxic pesticide intended to kill the predator, but this almost always ends killing large numbers of vultures that typically discover the carcasses,” says Dr Ogada.

The researcher says that the vulture population has been steadily declining across the world, robbing mother nature one of the most effective scavengers; one that provides invaluable ecological, economic and cultural services in the wilds.

“Most notably, vultures provide free and highly effective sanitation services. The vulture-governed cleaning service protects the health of humans, domesticated animals, and wildlife,” says Ogada.

Data from African Wildlife Poisoning Database indicates that since the year 2000, 775 vulture deaths have been recorded in Kenya. The cases are however underestimated as those reported are few and sometimes only confined to areas where conservationists are.

“It is important to note that the poisoning incidents are based on where conservationists are working and are not representative of the situation in Kenya as a whole. There are also a serious underestimation of the numbers,” says Ogada.

Vulture deaths

Between 2000 and 2004, there was a steep rise in the number of vultures in Kenya. More than 180 cases were reported in 2004, numbers which reduced drastically to slightly over 30 cases in 2005.

The cases of vulture poisoning again rose from 2007 through to 2009. Between 2018 and March 2020 specifically, the cases have been on the rise with 80 cases recorded by March 2020.

According to Birdlife International, poisoning accounts for more than 60 per cent of recorded vulture deaths in Africa. Their populations have declined by up to 98 per cent.

In the last 20 years, Kenya has recorded 257 incidences of wildlife poisoning involving deaths of 8,172 individuals.  Cases of wildlife poisoning have been most prevalent in Narok, Laikipia, Amboseli, Meru, Machakos, Makueni, Taita Taveta, Tana River, Lamu, Thika, Muranga, Usenge among others.

Wildlife poisoning has also had devastating effects on the declining number of predators including lions and cheetahs.

Mara Predator Conservation Project (MPCP) Community Public Relations Manager Michael Kaelo said wildlife poisoning is increasingly becoming the greatest threat to the Mara ecosystem.

“Unlike other threats, a single poisoning incident can wipe an entire pride of lions in a short span, something that can further wipe out hundreds of vultures if there is no rapid response,” he says.

The MPCP conducts research and collects vital data towards survival and conservation of predators in Mara and relies on intensive monitoring to flag poisoning hotspots.

In 2015, one of world’s most famous lion pride- Marsh Pride, which starred in Big Cat Diary died of poisoning. The lions died after eating a carcass of a cow laced with poison.

According to Nature Kenya, a conservation organisation with vulture projects in Mara, cases of wildlife poisoning stems from rising cases of human-wildlife conflicts.

“We have been undertaking the vulture project in Mara for the past three years and we have witnessed the danger of lacing agro-chemicals on carcasses to kill the predators which in turn kill a lot of vultures within the ecosystem. This, in turn, exposes the local communities to the risk of infectious zoonotic diseases like anthrax because of the absence of scavengers,” says Rebecca Ikachoi, Vulture Liaison officer, Nature Kenya.

Maasai Mara National Reserve Chief park warden James Sindiyo concedes that slow pace of compensation and open conservancies are driving poisoning incidents.

“The challenge is that compensation takes longer, making people retaliate. Compensation is often done by the national government, however, to alleviate the long wait, most of the conservancies have come up with consolation schemes which they disburse to affected people as they wait for the government,” says Mr Sindiyo.

According to the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013, wildlife poisoning is a crime punishable by a penalty of Sh5 million or a minimum of 5 years’ imprisonment.

Wildlife saviours

However, all is not lost as several initiatives have come up to save nature’s undertakers, as well as lions and cheetahs within the expansive ecosystem. These are currently taking root both in Mara and Laikipia.

Teams of conservationists traverse the expansive plains teaching villagers the importance of vultures.

Benjamin Olengishu, is one of the 30 vulture volunteers in Mara. His work is to talk to his fellow community members against poisoning.

"Some years back, there used to be so many vultures in Mara but sadly, their populations have really been reduced. It is not very easy to spot a vulture now like back then," Olengishu said.

In his village, he often gathers locals for meetings two to three times a month to explore alternative solutions to human-wildlife conflicts instead of using poison.

With Chief Ole Kasoi Olengishu visit markets and addresses local meetings as well as collecting data on vulture deaths resulting from poisoning.

“It is not that we do not benefit from wildlife, in fact, we are the biggest beneficiaries with women selling beadwork to tourists and most local youth as tour guides and working in hotels and conservancies within Mara. Narok, undeniably reaps from tourism and that is why it is important to conserve wildlife,” Olengishu says.

The vulture volunteers who are part of Nature Kenya's initiative to have local ambassadors, often team up with Maasai Mara Wildlife Ambassadors to further sensitise community against poisoning of both predators and scavengers.

"We target the market days where we team up for some performance to attract crowds where we finally share the message on wildlife poisoning," Francis Muli, a member of Maasai Mara Wildlife ambassadors said.

According to Simon Makogha, a liaison officer with Nature Kenya in Mara, the vulture volunteers have managed to conduct over 70 market outreaches and over 100 barazas with over 100, 000 locals reached.

"Almost everyone in Mara now knows about poisoning. They know it is against the law and that there are alternative ways of addressing issues. Besides reaching out to grownups, we also have school outreach programmes," Makogha says.

Rebecca Ikachoi said both rangers, vulture volunteers and wildlife ambassadors in Mara have also been trained on responding to poisoning cases so as to prevent a number of deaths. The rangers are provided with poison response kits that help secure the scene. The kits contain a sample bag, a tape to secure the site, gloves and sanitizers.

"Training rangers on rapid response has really helped save more lives that could have otherwise been lost. In January last year, Mara poisoning response team rescued several vultures that could have otherwise died from the poisoning. The drill is to seal off the area and burn all the carcases while those that did not die can be treated," she said adding that the rangers are also trained to identify the type of poison used so as to flag the commonly used chemicals in poisoning.

She added that Nature Kenya is also working with Kenya Wildlife Service and other stakeholders to develop a national document on poison protocol while also working with Narok County government to develop a tourism policy on community consolation kitty.

Michael Kaelo an officer with the Mara Predator Conservation Program at the Researcher centre during an interview on June 6, 2020. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Secure homes

In Sekenani location, it is however not all dim as new projects to improve traditional cattle sheds are coming up. The new predator-proof bomas (homes), are fast changing the script within the expansive landscape that has since borne the brunt of intense human-wildlife cases. The bomas is a team-up initiative between Mara Predator Conservation Programme and Nature Kenya.

“We have already constructed five predator-proof bomas in areas where intense cases have been recorded. We use posts from recycled plastics and a chain link that makes it hard for predators to get in unlike the traditional bomas,” Ikachoi said.

Naramat Kasoe, a resident, said the predator-proof bomas have helped ease the burden in the area noting that the pressure from straying predators has reduced. However, constructing the predator-bomas are more expensive with materials rare to find.

 “We lit bonfires the entire night to keep away the straying predators but still, we could not manage to keep them away. We since stopped filling in compensation forms because they never come through but the installation of the new bomas is a boost. We can now nap in peace the entire night after the organisations helped us construct. Sourcing for materials is also expensive,” Kasoe says.

Mara Predator Conservation Programme has also initiated anti-poisoning campaigns since 2015 to address the plight of predators in the larger Mara.

Dr Darcy Ogada said wildlife poisoning cases in Mara are close to those in Laikipia where pastoralists border conservancies. Latest incident in Laikipia involved eighteen vultures that died after feeding on the suspected poisoned carcass of a camel poisoned to trap a lion.

In Laikipia, the Peregrine Fund is working with Lion Landscapes to raise awareness and conduct community co-existence training to reduce wildlife poisoning incidences. The training has seen 832 locals trained since 2018 and 424 conservancy rangers, policemen, prison warders, CID officers, KWS and KFs officers trained as specialists’ groups.

“We talk to communities on the importance of vultures for the ecosystem and how they are easily poisoned when people kill predators or dogs with poison.  We show people what to look for if they suspect an animal has been poisoned, and how to safely dispose of poisoned carcasses. We also supply them with a Poisoning Kit to assist them to safely dispose of poisoned carcasses,” Dr Ogada says.

The successful approaches of dealing with poisoning and addressing conflicts, she adds, can also be replicated in conservation areas bordering pastoral communities and in human-wildlife hotspots zones.

The fund has also been conducting research and monitoring of vulture populations in northern Kenya since 2013, an initiative that has seen 28 vultures of three species tagged and since 2014.

“We also conduct aerial surveys to monitor three of the largest breeding colonies of Rüppell’s Vultures twice annually and we have done this for the past three years. We currently have one Kenyan Master’s student working to complete his degree on vulture movement in relation to poisoning incidents,” she added.

 Statistics from Peregrine Fund reveals that there has been a 40 per cent increase in disposal of poisoned carcasses in Laikipia while 16 per cent of the locals reported knowledge of safety around pesticide use and 15 per cent decrease in the use of pesticides.

 “To date, there have seen 350 predator-proof bomas built mostly around the wider Rumuruti area.  This has dramatically reduced predator conflict,” she added.

 This story was produced with a grant from Internews’ Earth Journalism Project