Thigh-high grass sways in the breeze as the effusive birdsong, so characteristic of the tropics, continues despite the midday heat. In this otherwise tranquil landscape, sights and sounds can be deceiving. It is only your nose that alerts you to the calamity that recently transpired.
Burnt flesh is a smell that once registered in the brain can never be forgotten. It is remarkable for its distinctiveness, perhaps more so because the circumstances of encountering it are often traumatic.
The charred pit containing ashes and a dozen or so half-burnt corpses of vultures is the first and often the only visual clue. Usually finding a site after poison has drained the life out of its victims is impossible: The landscape is vast, there is nothing left to tell the story.
It is only through the vigilance of a Kenyan colleague that this story is being told at all. If not for his awareness, the silent death of yet another innocent group of scavengers would have gone unknown, unrecorded and unremarkable.
Yet here I stood picking among the remains that were left unburnt after a crew was sent to dispose of the carcasses to prevent further contamination. I wanted samples to test in the lab. This is the only way to determine the types of pesticides that are widely misused to poison wildlife.
In this case the target was three lions that had made a meal of someone’s cattle. In retaliation three cow carcasses were baited with poison. The lions never took the bait, but vultures did. Thirty-two critically endangered Rüppell’s and White-backed vultures perished after unwittingly feasting on the contaminated carcasses. I came to record the evidence, because without it these heinous acts are often denied.Some of the 32 critically endangered White-backed and Rueppell’s vultures that were poisoned, prior to being burnt. Photo by J. Wahome
The half-burnt vulture carcasses had been scattered around the site, probably by hyenas intent on an easy meal that unfortunately would kill them, too. We never know how many hyenas die from poisoning because many only succumb after making it back to the subterranean chambers of their dens.
Many of the remaining carcasses were virtually intact, with singed feathers the only visible clue to their trauma. It was only through handling the carcasses that their state of decay from a week spent in the equatorial sun was evident. A new smell erupted, bacteria having decomposed the vultures from the inside out.
Their intestinal tracts were mush, so I took the heads and crucially, the beaks and palates, as this is where traces of pesticides might still be found.
From the charred pit, we began a wider search for more victims. A Tawny Eagle lay sprawled horizontal across a tree canopy. Its eyes open, its wings askew—a telltale sign of poisoning, and evidence of its struggle before succumbing.
I’m told the only other victims were a cow and a calf, purportedly poisoned after eating grass contaminated by the vomit or feces of the poisoned vultures. While I wish no animal or human to ever have to die from the ravages of poisoning, the death of these innocent cows was a lesson to those who retaliate. Despite often substantial economic losses, using poison just doesn’t pay: Poison knows no bounds.
Two days later and yet another poisoning.
This time the circumstances were less clear. A lion, or perhaps a cheetah had attacked livestock. A carcass was baited in retaliation. Two critically endangered vultures died, alongside two tawny eagles and one jackal. The story repeats itself and the victims remain the same.
Always there are vultures.