08/07/2017
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Almost 100 vultures dead after eating poisoned elephant carcass

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Ninety-four Critically Endangered African White-backed Vultures have been reported dead after feeding on a poisoned elephant carcass recently in Zimbabwe.

The incident occurred in Gonarezhou, a small locality near the town of Chiqualaquala, an area which has become a hub for illegal wildlife trade along the country’s border with Mozambique. It is unclear how the African Elephant came to be poisoned, but a wildlife poisoning and mortality report from Frankfurt Zoological Society experts indicated that it was killed by a watermelon laced with what is suspected to be Temik, a carbamate pesticide. Experts are analysing samples in a laboratory to determine the poison.

“The tusks of the elephant were removed, so [we are] not sure whether the cause is accidental, secondary poisoning or deliberate lacing of the carcass to cause vulture deaths,” the report stated.


The poisoned vultures and elephant carcass in situ (BirdLife International).

Conservationists working at Gonarezhou NP have said the motive for poisoning is likely to be ivory, as only the elephant’s tusks were missing when the carcass was discovered, whereas all body parts of the vultures were intact. However, vultures are also deliberately poisoned by elephant poachers to avoid detection by wildlife authorities via vulture circling behaviour and this could perhaps be an additional motivation for the crime.

BirdLife Zimbabwe has expressed deep concern over the incident and immediately developed plans to step up efforts to protect the birds, which are rapidly declining in Africa. Anti-poisoning work by the organisation has been ongoing in Hwange NP to reduce this illegal activity which has claimed the lives of many vultures.

“I was shocked and sad. This is a huge setback for vulture conservation efforts in Zimbabwe and in the region. The incident took place within the borders of Zimbabwe, but vultures are wide-ranging birds and could have come from neighbouring countries. By poisoning wildlife we are also poisoning ourselves,” said Fadzai Matsvimbo, Manager of the Preventing Extinctions Programme at BirdLife Zimbabwe.

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At least one of the African White-backed Vultures was wing tagged, but the precise source of this bird
has yet to be announced (BirdLife International).

Ms Matsvimbo described the decline of vultures in Africa as: “our legacy and [the] heritage of future generations being destroyed,” noting that four species are already listed as Critically Endangered, and such losses only edge them closer to extinction. “We certainly cannot afford to lose these majestic birds from Africa’s landscape,” she stressed.

Illegal killing of wildlife with poisoned baits has caused a chain reaction with disastrous effects on vultures, where farmers and herders are typically targeting predators such as Lions and hyenas, while poachers target other animals like elephants for ivory. It is known that one poisoned elephant carcass can cause up to 500 vulture deaths.

BirdLife Zimbabwe’s approach has been to increase awareness of the birds' plight by involving locals and members of the public in the campaign to conserve the vultures. It is also reaching out to law enforcement agencies, legislators and prosecutors to ensure that laws are adequate and enforced. “Perpetrators of such crimes when caught should face deterring sentences. All vultures are Specially Protected Species under the Parks and Wildlife Act. They should benefit fully from this status by having the law protect them to the fullest,” commented Fadzai.

Most vultures are teetering on the brink of extinction across Africa. They play a vital role in preventing the spread of life-threatening diseases, and so the BirdLife International Partnership in Africa is working closely with communities, governments and other experts to save vultures on the continent. BirdLife’s approach has been to develop an integrated anti-poisoning campaign in several African countries, working alongside wildlife authorities to rapidly respond to incidents and minimise casualties, while also establishing vulture 'safe zones' and ensuring the wider involvement of locals, scientists, government and other stakeholders.

Written by: BirdGuides news team