Poisoning of vultures stirs up questions for wildlife regulations

Africa’s vultures are under dire threat mainly due to poisoning and other human activities. In October 2015, four species of African vultures were declared critically endangered, and two species were up listed to endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; the global indicator of a species well-being.

Poisoned White-backed and Rueppell’s vultures ADC Mutara 7 Jan 2016 Photo J Wahome

Poisoned White-backed and Rueppell’s vultures ADC Mutara 7 Jan 2016
Photo J Wahome

This means that the most commonly occurring vultures in Laikipia namely White-backed and Rüppell’s vultures, are at high risk of global extinction. Also facing extinction are the critically endangered Hooded Vultures, and the Endangered Lappet-faced Vultures. To date, there are three species of vultures that are only rarely seen in the wild in Laikipia and the are: The Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier) that formerly nested on the Loldaigas; the White-headed Vulture whose former abundance in Laikipia is not well known; and the Egyptian Vulture that still thrived within the landscape until approximately 15-20 years ago, when their decline started to become apparent.

Today poisoning is the greatest threat to vultures worldwide, and the birds residing in Laikipia face the same threat. The poisoning of predators like lions and hyenas in retaliation for livestock loss is a huge challenge, and it is undoubtedly the biggest threat to Laikipia’s scavengers.

Sadly, early the New Year, vultures in Laikipia faced two separate poisoning incidents. The first took place at ADC Mutara on 6th January and occurred when lions killed four cows. In retaliation to this, herders laced three of the carcasses with an unknown poison. The result was the gruesome death of at least 32 White-backed and Rüppell’s vultures, and one Tawny Eagle. Two cows were also poisoned after grazing on grass contaminated by the vomit and faeces of the dying vultures. While the loss of livestock to predators is a serious issue for pastoralists, the indiscriminate use poisons is clearly not the answer.

The second incident occurred days later on Narok Ranch where two vultures, two Tawny Eagles, and one jackal were poisoned after a predator attacked a cow and a sheep.

“As a scientist, I can only speak with alarm when the small tracking devices we use to study the movements of vultures out lives the birds themselves. Vultures can live for many years and are slow reproducing birds. Ideally, they should live between 20 and 30 years, however most that I’ve tracked wandering widely in Laikipia, Samburu, and Marsabit Counties are lucky to survive even one year. For a group of species that typically lays only one egg, every other year, this situation can only result in the drastic decline Kenya’s resident vultures, affecting their long-term survival” says Darcy Ogada from the Peregrine Fund.

However it is not too late and measures can still be put in place that will help save these birds that play a vital role in the ecosystem. Efforts have already begun throughout Kenya will progress in 2016 and beyond. The more people involved, the more successful initiatives will be. This has begun through the training of rangers and field scouts to deter poisoning incidents. “We are also seeking creative ways to finance a vulture restaurant, or feeding station, which could provide ‘safe’ food for vultures.

As we work to improve the situation for vultures, please get in touch if you observe or have any old stories about Bearded, White-headed or Egyptian vultures anywhere in Kenya. We are also interested in knowing about the breeding locations of any species of vulture in Kenya. Finally, please report any poisoning incidences to KWS and to us” concludes Ms. Ogada.

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