Kenya's vultures on brink of extinction

White-headed Vulture (second from right) with African White-backed Vultures; both species are now gravely endangered after a rapid decline. Photo: Bernard Dupont (commons.wikimedia.org).
White-headed Vulture (second from right) with African White-backed Vultures; both species are now gravely endangered after a rapid decline. Photo: Bernard Dupont (commons.wikimedia.org).
After a Lion poisoning incident in Kenya's Maasai Mara, 11 White-backed Vultures were also found dead, highlighting their plummet towards extinction.

The deaths of three lions from the 'Marsh Pride' in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, made famous by BBC television series The Big Cat Diaries, caught the mainstream media's attention. BirdLife International and its partner Nature Kenya were shocked at this news, but also noted that it wasn't just the Lions that had been killed.

Less reported but just as devastating, were the deaths of 11 Critically Endangered White-backed Vultures. The Lions and vultures died after feeding on a cow carcass laced with a pesticide suspected to be carbofuran. It is believed that Maasai herders laced the carcass with the poison after Lions had attacked livestock that were grazing illegally inside the reserve.

Vultures are very sensitive to pesticides such as carbofuran and these deaths highlight a huge problem of a breakdown in the pastoral traditions that have enabled coexistence of wildlife and livestock herding for hundreds of years, as well as readily available and easily accessible toxic carbamate-based pesticides. Carbofuran and carbosulfan are sold in Kenya despite their known toxicities.

Poisoning is a leading cause of the rapid decline of vultures across Africa. Habitat loss, use of vulture parts in the traditional medicine trade and loss of food are also factors leading to their continued decline. Four species of African vulture were recently listed by BirdLife as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

The importance of vultures is often overlooked because of their perceived character as bringers of death and decay. In popular culture, politicians, land-grabbers and corrupt officials are often portrayed as vultures, an insult formed out of these preconceptions. In reality, vultures play a critical role in keeping the environment clean and are an important part of the food web on which all living things – including people – depend.

Nature Kenya, the region’s oldest scientific society, has demanded three measures to try to solve the urgent problem of vulture declines. Firstly, the Maasai community are asked to uphold their traditions of wildlife conservation, with community members being urged to keep livestock out of protected areas and stop poisoning wildlife. Secondly, the private sector and government are asked to collaborate in controlling the use of toxic pesticides, which are hazardous to people and wildlife, as well as important pollinators such as bees. Lastly, it has asked the public to appreciate that vultures in the wild play a crucial role in the environment, and are a beautiful spectacle to behold when circling in the skies.

Four of the 11 vulture species in Africa are now considered to be Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List of threatened species: these are Rüppell’s, White-backed Vulture, Hooded and White-headed Vultures.

Many African vulture populations have declined by up to 98 per cent, which demonstrates the extinction threat they face continent wide. In the Maasai Mara, vultures have declined by 50 per cent over 30 years and human-wildlife conflict is one of the leading reasons behind the use of poisoned baits. Often herders use poison to retaliate against wild predators for killing livestock. Agro-chemicals are the poison of choice, indiscriminately killing predators and scavengers. One poisoned carcass can lead to cascading effects leading to multiple deaths; each animal that is poisoned presents a risk of further predator and scavenger poisoning.

The use of poisons in poaching is also having a massive impact on vultures. Between 2012 and 2014, more than 2,000 vultures were killed in nearly a dozen poaching-related incidents in seven African countries.