14 Dec 2015

Kenya's vultures on brink of extinction - especially after lion poisoning incident in Maasai Mara

Less reported but just as devastating, were the deaths of eleven Critically Endangered White-backed Vultures. Photo: Gill & Andy Swash
Less reported but just as devastating, were the deaths of eleven Critically Endangered White-backed Vultures. Photo: Gill & Andy Swash
By Paul Gacheru

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 world’s attention.

BirdLife and Nature Kenya (BirdLife Partner) were shocked with sadness at this loss. This statement from Nature Kenya talks about the other story to the poisoning which was overlooked by many.

Less reported but just as devastating, were the deaths of eleven 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 poison after lions had attacked livestock that were grazing illegally inside the reserve.

Four species of African vulture were recently listed by BirdLife as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Vultures are very sensitive to toxic carbamate-based pesticides 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.
  • Readily available and easily accessible toxic carbamate-based pesticides such as carbosulfan 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.

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

Nature Kenya, the region’s oldest scientific society, makes the following calls to action:

  1. The Maasai community to uphold their traditions of wildlife conservation, by urging community members to keep livestock out of protected areas and stop poisoning wildlife.
  2. The private sector and government to collaborate in controlling the use of pesticides that aretoxic and hazardous to people and wildlife as well as important pollinators such as bees.
  3. The public to appreciate that vultures in popular culture and vultures out in nature have entirely different personalities and functions. Vultures in the wild play a crucial role in the environment, and are a beautiful spectacle to behold when circling the skies.

Fact file:

Four of the eleven vulture species in Africa are now considered to be Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List of threatened species. These are:

• Many African vulture populations have declined by up to 98%, which demonstrates the extinction threat they face continent wide. In the Maasai Mara, vultures have declined by 50% 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.

• Ecosystem services provided by wildlife and vultures in particular, will be impossible or enormously costly to replace once they are lost. A single living vulture is worth approximately USD 11,000 because of the scavenging services they provide. It is expected that the decline of vulture populations there will be an adverse impact on our health sector. These toxic pesticides can wash into rivers which are used by communities and therefore pose an even wider threat to human health. In addition, handling of these pesticides without the correct training and protection may also pose threats to users.

• From the wide use of agro-chemicals in deliberate and accidental poisoning it is clear that stricter regulations backed by government policies are desperately needed on the importation, manufacture, distribution, sale and use of agro-chemicals and other toxic compounds, especially those known to be lethal to vultures and other wildlife.

• According to section 92 of the Wildlife Act in Kenya, “Any person who commits an offence in respect of an endangered or threatened species or in respect of any trophy of that endangered or threatened species shall be liable upon conviction to a fine of not less than twenty million shillings or life imprisonment or both.”

• There is need for collaborative effort from national government and agencies, civil society, local communities and the general public to raise awareness on the importance of safeguarding our vultures and biodiversity for improved quality of life.

Related links:

National Geographic - Vultures too are dying from Masai Mara poison attack

BirdLife's Save Vultures Campaign - Love Vultures