Where have all the vultures gone?

Marianne Betts, Africa Albida Tourism • 25 February 2020

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The Africa Albida Tourism group, owners of Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, report that at the end of 2019, there was a worrying downturn in the daily number and diversity of vultures visiting their well-known vulture “restaurant” the Vulture Culture Experience (pictured below).

Victoria Falls Safari Lodge estate wildlife supervisor Moses Garira blames a poisoning incident last June 130 km away in Botswana.

The bodies of 537 vultures were found at the site of poached elephant carcasses in northern Botswana... Ours are the same vultures which go to Botswana and back.  We used to feed 300 to 350 vultures daily, but now only around 100 vultures are coming.  

Garira says he previously used to see lappet-faced and white –headed vultures also feeding in amongst the crowd of predominantly white-backed and hooded vultures, at the vulture restaurant, but in the past eight months he’s seen neither of these species.

However, since December, the numbers coming to feed are up 10%.  It seems that this is because the babies which are born around the middle of the year, are strong enough to leave their nests after four or five months.

This poisoning incident has had a very big impact…. If we don’t do anything (to conserve the vultures), in 50 years time there may be no vultures left on Earth, says Garira.

Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust wildlife and research manager, Roger Parry added more information about the poisoning incident.  It seems that seven elephants were shot in a remote area north of Nata, and three of their bodies laced with carbofuran to poison the vultures so they could not alert law enforcement authorities to the poachers’ location.

It was disastrous… it’s quite sick, actually, said Parry.

His estimate of the toll is more conservative, saying in addition to the 537 dead (mostly white-backed vultures found at the site), up to 180 more birds may have perished due to the incident, and that the population would take five to eight years to recover.

After this incident, we found a dead vulture 120 km away in the Zambezi National Park.  We tested it, and it came back positive for carbofuran, the same poison used in the poaching incident, so we suspect it was linked to that.

Parry says there has been a definite decline in vultures at the Vulture Culture Experience since last year, with a 10-day monitoring project showing numbers were down on average by 11%.  However, day to day numbers fluctuate depending on whether there are other carcasses in the area.

We are speculating this drop in numbers is as a result of the poisoning, but it can’t be confirmed.

Parry says the incident has highlighted a concerning gap in the monitoring of vultures, and has prompted a meeting in Victoria Falls in March 2020 with counterparts from Botswana, Namibia and Zambia to develop a logistical and coordinated approach to vulture conservation.

Parry envisions a multi-pronged approach, which, in addition to improving vulture  monitoring, would see resources put in place to respond quickly to poisoning incidents so the site is cleaned up before more damage is done.

He also hopes to focus on education, law enforcement and poison control, which would include the removal of some of the poisons favoured by poachers from the market.

White-backed, lappet-faced, hooded, white-headed, palmnut and Cape vultures are found in Zimbabwe, and all of them have been listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as either endangered or crucially endangered.

Malicious poisoning by wildlife poachers is currently the single largest threat vultures face in Zimbabwe, says Parry.

This is followed by accidental poisoning, for example, if a farmer poisons a predator, and the carass is consumed by a vulture, or through veterinary drugs, particularly diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory commonly used to treat livestock, which kills vultures.

Vulture restaurants play an important role in providing a safe food source for these birds, and while some argue they create a dependency, not enough food is provided to sustain them, so, while birds have become habituated to feeding at the vulture restaurants, they are not dependent on them, he says.

The Vulture Culture Experience, which occurs at 1pm daily in front of Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, treats visitors to the spectacular sight of vultures swooping to feed on leftover meat scraps and bones from the onsite restaurants, and gives an insight to their ecological important and the plight they face.

Vultures are critical to our environment – by consuming carcasses, they keep it clean and functioning as it should by helping to prevent the spread of diseases such as rabies and anthrax.

Parry is appealing to everyone to be “eyes and ears” on the ground, reporting poisoning incidents and vulture deaths to BirdLife Zimbabwe on  +263 242 481496 (Mon to Fri 8.30a.m. to 4.30pm) or +263 772 758748 or email: fadzai@blz.co.zw


Related articles:-

Vultures: cute and cuddly they are not, but they need protection (Travel Blog Oct 2016)

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