Last year some 537 White-backed vultures died from what was believed to be poisoning from diclofenac laced carcasses they fed on.
Earlier this year, on February 11, another incident occurred in the vicinity of Mosu Village in central Botswana – about 1000km from the capital Gaborone – when White-backed vultures died on the scene from similar suspected poisoning by an unknown famer trying to kill livestock predators.
This has gotten, and still does get Keddy Moleofi all the more worried. The Project Officer at BirdLife Botswana, a non-profit bird conservation organisation which seeks to preserve birds from extinction, says incidents such as these are a threat to the vulture population in Botswana.
“Considering the frequency of poisoning incidents across the country, some of them [incidents] may be happening out there but communities are not able to report. In many instances, some people, especially those who are aware of the penalty they could face when caught, do not report poisoning cases,” she reveals.
The other danger, she says, is the hunting of vultures for traditional medicine. “Traditional doctors believe that the head and eyes of a vulture are efficient in providing powers, foresight and increased intelligence,” Moleofi reveals.
On that score, Moleofi argues that penalties for offenders who kill vultures are lenient when compared with those visited on those who kill rhinos.
“There is a need to have more interventions such as amending the laws and regulations. For instance, the current Wildlife Conservation and National Park Act prohibits the use of poison to kill wildlife. Anyone who contravenes it is liable to a fine of P5,000.00 and to 5 years in prison, the penalty for killing a vulture is P1,000.00 or 1 year in prison. Whereas killing a rhino is P100,000.00 and 10 years in prison. These are insignificant fines and they need to be reviewed to scare the public.”
Moleofi proposes: “The penalty for killing a vulture should be P70,000.00 and 15 years in prison because vultures are known globally to be threatened. Soon they will be extinct. Therefore, we need laws and acts that can effectively protect them from poisoning.”
While acknowledging that government, through the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), has been working with BirdLife Botswana (BLB) to deal with the poisoning issue, she points out that the level of response is not satisfactory.
“BLB and DWNP have formed a working group where vulture concerns and conservation approaches are being tackled together. When there is a poisoning incident government responds by availing veterinary officers to test the cause of death and confirm the type of chemical used on the carcass. The Department also supports the events held to sensitise the public, for example, kgotla meetings and workshops. The government also assists in support to mobilise funds for vulture conservation,” says the project officer.
BLB, which has a citizen science programme aimed at determining the wild bird population trends, also adds it has been evident that vulture sightings in the wild have drastically declined more especially the White-backed Vultures.
“Volunteers report that nowadays one can spot dead livestock which could be a donkey, a cow, or a goat without any vultures nearby. Until now, most work has been done to determine the extent or distribution of vultures using satellite telemetry,” says Moleofi.
Despite diclofenac poisoning being on top of all the threats (in addition to the misuse of agro-chemicals), the latest threat is lead poisoning which is more harmful and deadly so says Moleofi.
The poisoning is caused by the ingestion of remains of a lead-based ammunition found on carcasses of wild and domestic animals that have been deliberately killed using lead bullets, or by ingesting entrails or carcasses left behind by irresponsible hunters.
When ingested in large enough quantities, lead has detrimental effects on the nervous and reproductive systems. Birds with lead poisoning exhibit loss of balance, gasping, tremors and impaired ability to fly. Emaciation follows and death can occur within 2 to 3 weeks after lead ingestion.
She adds a litany of other threats to vultures being collusion with power lines, lack of suitable habitat, big nesting trees being destroyed by elephants, human activities such as; farming, firewood collection and craft making.
Vultures are important in the ecosystem. A decline in their numbers increases those of stray dogs including other species capable of causing rabies.
Vultures are able to digest putrid carcasses infected with toxins or diseases that are potentially lethal to other scavenging animals due to the corrosive strength of their stomach acid. By so doing, they clean the landscape and help prevent the spread of diseases such as Anthrax, Rabies, Tuberculosis, Botulism, and Brucellosis.
“If vultures vanish there will be no source of recreation. People derive pleasure and get therapy from viewing vultures. They contribute to the economic benefits that accrue to tourism. Vultures help farmers to locate their lost or dead livestock and help authorities to identify illegal poaching activities. They also reduce carcases disposal costs,” says Moleofi.
There are five vulture species found in Botswana which are White-backed Vulture, Lappet-faced Vulture, Cape Vulture, Hooded Vulture and White-headed Vulture. And all of them are endangered and critically endangered.
BirdLife Botswana has developed a reporting platform on its website where people can access and report incidences at http://www.birdlifebotswana.org.bw/node/add/vulture-and-animal-sightings.
“This helps us map the most affected areas around the country. The Organisation has been implementing a campaign called ‘I want Vultures Alive not dead’ aimed at sensitising the public about vulture poisoning countrywide,” says Moleofi.
Moleofi says over the last 10 years BLB has, in partnership with the DWNP, undertaken a capacity enhancement initiative providing poisoning response training to communities, wildlife scouts, stakeholders, farmers and rangers in responding to poisoning incidents.