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Wildlife Watch

Vultures Also Dead From Kenya Lion Poisoning

A recent incident in East Africa highlights the decline of a crucial species.

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Vulture expert Simon Thomsett removes a dead white-backed vulture from a tree in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Eleven of them died this week after eating poison-laced carcasses. 


This week, three lions died in southwestern Kenya after eating a poison-laced cow carcass, Wildlife Watch reported. Those lions, and five others also poisoned, come from Masai Mara National Reserve’s Marsh Pride, which starred in the popular BBC series called Big Cat Diary.

The lions might be the best known victims of this incident, but they’re not the only ones. Eleven endangered white-backed vultures also died after feasting on poisoned carcasses—and these deaths underscore a huge problem. In Africa and elsewhere, poison has contributed to the population decline of these scavengers, whose importance is often overlooked because of their perceived ick factor.

“Across the board, it’s the biggest threat worldwide,” says Darcy Ogada, assistant director of African programs for The Peregrine Fund, an Idaho-based nonprofit dedicated to saving birds of prey. She authored a study published in June that attributed more than 60 percent of 7,800 vulture deaths recorded across 26 African countries to poisoning.

The populations of eight of the continent’s vulture species have fallen by an average of 62 percent, the researchers found, and four of Africa’s species are considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which determines the conservation status of the world’s animals. (Read more National Geographic coverage about Africa’s vulture loss here)

Much of the time, vulture poisonings in Africa are unintentional. In this most recent instance, it’s believed that Maasai herders intended to poison the lions in retaliation for their attacks on livestock. Authorities have arrested two men and are holding a third as a material witness.

But ivory poachers also use poison to kill elephants or lace their carcasses specifically to eliminate vultures so they won’t circle overhead and reveal the poachers’ presence, according to a study published Monday in the journal Oryx. The researchers found that between 2012 and 2014, about 150 elephants and more than 2,000 vultures were killed in nearly a dozen poaching-related incidents in seven African countries.

States of Decline

There are 23 species of vulture divided into two families by hemisphere, New World and Old World, each facing threats.

Number of species

None

1

8

NORTH

ASIA

EUROPE

AMERICA

AFRICA

SOUTH

AMERICA

AUSTRALIA

AMERICAS: RECOVERING

AFRICA: DECLINING

INDIA: CRASHED

When counts of California condors began in the early 1900s, the birds’ ranks had already been decimated. After decades of conservation efforts, numbers are growing, but lead poisoning from spent ammunition in scavenged carcasses is still a threat.

Poisoned by herders aiming to protect their livestock and by poachers afraid that circling vultures will give away their location, some groups are shrinking by as much as 50 percent a decade. Traditional healers believe vulture brains grant the ability to see the future.

India’s populations plunged in the mid-1990s. Hindu belief prohibits consumption of beef, so cows that die are disposed of outdoors. Vultures died of kidney failure after eating cows that had been treated with the bovine drug diclofenac. The drug was banned in India in 2006.

California Condor

Population

Birds Counted in India

Transect Surveys

Causes for Decline in

African Vultures

2012

235

 

1992

2007

1%

Killing for food

1950

150

 

9%

Electrical infrastructure

2000

vultures

wild condors

Killing for traditional

medicine

29%

2012

169

 

1967

1

 

-96.8%

 

captive

61%

Poisoning

Indian and

Slender-billed

0

-99.9%

 

White-rumped

MATTHEW TWOMBLY, LAUREN C. TIERNEY, CHIQUI ESTEBAN, NG STAFF

SOURCE: DARCY OGADA, PEREGRINE FUND; SIMON THOMSETT, NATIONAL MUSEUMS OF KENYA; STEVE KIRKLAND, U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE; BIRDLIFE INTERNATIONAL; VIBHU PRAKASH, JOURNAL OF THE BOMBAY NATURAL HISTORY SOCIETY, 2007

States of Decline

There are 23 species of vulture divided into two families by hemisphere, New World and Old World, each facing threats.

Number of species

None

1

8

AMERICAS: RECOVERING

When counts of California condors began in the early 1900s, the birds’ ranks had already been decimated. After decades of conservation efforts, numbers are growing, but lead poisoning from spent ammunition in scavenged carcasses is still a threat.

California Condor

Population

2012

235

 

1950

150

 

wild condors

2012

169

 

1967

1

 

captive

AFRICA: DECLINING

Poisoned by herders aiming to protect their livestock and by poachers afraid that circling vultures will give away their location, some groups are shrinking by as much as 50 percent a decade. Traditional healers believe vulture brains grant the ability to see the future.

Causes for Decline in

African Vultures

1%

Killing for food

9%

Electrical infrastructure

Killing for traditional

medicine

29%

61%

Poisoning

INDIA: CRASHED

India’s populations plunged in the mid-1990s. Hindu belief prohibits consumption of beef, so cows that die are disposed of outdoors. Vultures died of kidney failure after eating cows that had been treated with the bovine drug diclofenac. The drug was banned in India in 2006.

Birds Counted in India

Transect Surveys

1992

2007

2000

vultures

-96.8%

 

Indian and

Slender-billed

0

-99.9%

 

White-rumped

MATTHEW TWOMBLY, LAUREN C. TIERNEY, CHIQUI ESTEBAN, NG STAFF

SOURCE: DARCY OGADA, PEREGRINE FUND; SIMON THOMSETT, NATIONAL MUSEUMS OF KENYA; STEVE KIRKLAND, U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE; BIRDLIFE INTERNATIONAL; VIBHU PRAKASH, JOURNAL OF THE BOMBAY NATURAL HISTORY SOCIETY, 2007

It's not only vultures in Africa that die from poisoning. In Asian countries such as India, cultural attitudes contributed to a mid-1990s population plunge described as the “Asian vulture crisis.” Hindus revere cattle, Ogada says, so deadly sick cows were given diclofenac, a painkilling drug, to ease suffering. But diclofenac can kill the vultures that feed on dead cows. The drug is also used in Spain, home to 95 percent of Europe’s vulture population, according to The Guardian.

In North America, lead poisoning from spent ammunition in scavenged carcasses still threatens California condors (yes, they’re vultures), whose numbers have been growing since 1987, when the species went extinct in the wild.

Although they’re not winning any popularity contests, vultures are ecologically important. Their highly evolved digestive systems allow them to eat diseased carcasses and not get sick. Without them there’s a greater chance that disease could spread, Ogada says, because other scavengers such as hyenas or, in the case of urban settings, feral dogs, aren’t as well adapted.

That’s what happened in India, where feral dogs replaced vultures as the main scavengers, and rabies cases exploded. David Allan, curator of birds at the Durban Natural Science Museum, told National Geographic in July that because of that, health care costs climbed by an estimated $34 billion in India between 1993 and 2006.

But Ogada thinks there’s reason to love the birds beyond this service: “They’re cool. They’re squabbling, they’re kicking—they’re so charismatic,” she says.

Unfortunately for vultures in Masai Mara Reserve, human-lion conflict has been on the rise as land subdivisions and privatization reduce grazing land for cattle. At night, some Masai are known to allow their cattle into the reserve, where the grazing is better—and illegal, explained Anne Kent Taylor, a conservationist at the reserve and a National Geographic Big Cats Initiative grantee.

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This vulture died after feeding on a poisoned cow carcass. It’s believed that Maasai herders intended to poison lions in retaliation for their attacks on livestock.


In this week’s incident, a pesticide in the highly toxic carbamate family likely killed the vultures and lions, though the poison won’t be revealed until lab testing concludes. Carbamates such as carbosulfan and carbofuran, which is banned in the European Union and effectively banned in the United States, have often been used to poison wildlife.

In 2009, though, the Philadelphia-based manufacturer of carbofuran, marketed under the trade name Furadan, held a buyback program to remove the product from Kenya after CBS’s 60 Minutes linked it to lion deaths in Masai Mara.

African countries need to curtail the easy access to highly toxic pesticides and other poisons, Ogada believes. “The abuse of pesticides goes far beyond poisoning wildlife,” she says in a National Geographic blog post.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback and story ideas to ngwildlife@ngs.org.

Follow Jani Actman on Twitter.

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