Elephant Poachers Poison Hundreds of Vultures to Evade Authorities

Elephant felled by poachers.  Photo courtesy of Gonarezhou Transfrontier Park
Elephant felled by poachers. Photo courtesy of Gonarezhou Transfrontier Park

The ongoing slaughter of Africa’s elephants is at record levels.  The situation has gotten out of hand in many countries, especially those lacking the resources to fight the increase in demand for ivory from the Far East.

Poachers lace the discarded elephant carcass with cheap poisons to kill vultures in mass.  Why? Because vultures circling in the sky alert wildlife authorities to the location of poachers’ activities.

With wildlife authorities struggling to save the remaining tuskers, there has been little attention paid to the other casualties of elephant poaching.  In what is now becoming commonplace across the continent, poachers lace the discarded elephant carcass with cheap poisons to kill vultures in mass.  Why? Because vultures circling in the sky alert wildlife authorities to the location of poachers’ activities.  Vultures are highly specialized to locate carcasses quickly so as to avoid competition from larger mammalian predators.  Poachers would prefer their nefarious activities to remain undetected to escape arrest.  So to a poacher capable of gunning down a 7-ton beast, poisoning several hundred vultures along the way is all in a days’ work.

Suspected elephant poacher arrested.  Photo courtesy of Gonarezhou Transfrontier Park
Suspected elephant poacher arrested. Photo courtesy of Gonarezhou Transfrontier Park

And if recent reports are anything to go by, many of Africa’s 11 species of vulture are in imminent danger of extinction.  In July this year up to 600 vultures died at a single elephant carcass that was poisoned near Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park.  There have been three other similar incidents in the wider region since the end of 2012, with each incident killing hundreds of vultures.

White-backed vultures poisoned at an elephant carcass.  Photo courtesy of Gonarezhou Transfrontier Park
White-backed vultures poisoned at an elephant carcass. Photo courtesy of Gonarezhou Transfrontier Park

Vultures are long-lived birds that reproduce very slowly, producing an average of one chick every other year.  Their current mortality rates are well above what is sustainable and populations of all species are crashing across the continent.

And if you don’t love vultures, you should.  They are nature’s most efficient and effective clean-up crew.  They go about their daily business without any fanfare.  Yet, in their little appreciated role, they are ensuring that our increasingly polluted planet remains a bit less polluted from the bacteria and other pathogens that accumulate on carcasses and at garbage dumps.  If you have ever seen the immaculately cleaned bones remaining from a carcass scavenged by vultures, you’ll know of the magic of these supremely adapted scavengers.

 

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Darcy has worked for The Peregrine Fund’s Africa Program since 2010 and is based in central Kenya. Most of her current work focuses on the conservation of vultures and owls. She is particularly passionate about ending the scourge of wildlife poisoning and stopping the illegal trafficking of owl eggs for belief-based uses in East Africa. Prior to joining The Peregrine Fund she undertook a post-doctoral fellowship with the Smithsonian Institution based at Mpala Research Centre, Kenya. She has studied Mackinder’s Eagle Owls in central Kenya and conducted other research on birds and rodents. She volunteered for the Peace Corps in Niger in 1995 and got her start studying wildlife as a Bald Eagle Nestwatcher for New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation. She came to Kenya in 2000 where she has lived ever since. Before moving to Kenya she was an avid skier and ice hockey player, now she spends her free time swimming, birding, and hiking and exploring Africa’s mountains with her son. She’s actively involved in a host of local conservation issues as a member of Nature Kenya’s Bird Committee and the Kenya Wildlife Service Bird Taskforce.