It isn’t that vultures don’t feel the threat from global warming
GABORONE, Botswana––Scarce over much of drought-parched India, Central Asia, and Africa, vultures still converge over dead livestock and wildlife in Botswana, stripping the corpses of even elephants and hippos down to the bones within hours––but for how much longer?
The Botswana Department of Wildlife & National Parks on June 20, 2019 disclosed the discovery of the remains of 468 white-backed vultures, 28 hooded vultures, 17 white-headed vultures, 14 lappet-faced vultures and 10 Cape vultures near the poison-soaked carcasses of three poached elephants within a former trophy hunting concession, just across the national border from Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.
“The law enforcement team attending the scene is working around the clock to decontaminate the area. Sampling of carcasses and the environment was done for further laboratory analysis,” reported Africa Geographic.
Five endangered species
“White-backed, white-headed and hooded vultures are critically endangered, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature,” Africa Geographic recited. “Lappet-faced and Cape vultures are classified as [merely] endangered.
Salvatore Cardoni, then wildlife editor for TakePart, back in 2013 explained the probable motive for the vulture killings, after 600 vultures were reportedly found poisoned beside a single elephant carcass in Botswana National Park, Namibia.
“Hell-bent on offing any witnesses to their deadly operation, elephant poachers have begun killing vultures en masse by lacing the discarded pachyderm bodies with poison pills,” Cardoni wrote.
“Hey, wildlife cops!”
“Why, you ask? Because circling, squawking vultures are the savanna equivalent of a screaming coal mine canary: ‘Hey wildlife cops, a bunch of elephants were just murdered right below us, and if you hurry, the poachers might still be catchable! Go! Go! Go!’”
“Similar incidents have occurred in Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Botswana in recent years,” Cardoni said.
“In West Africa,” far to the northwest of the nations where vulture poisonings were documented, “vulture populations have declined by 42% over the past 30 years,” Cardoni mentioned. But since there are no elephants to poach in most of West Africa, poachers are less easily blamed for the vulture decline there.
“Because vultures fly long distances to feed outside national parks, they are increasingly at risk from chemical poisoning in agriculture areas,” Cardoni speculated.
One perp poisoned half the vultures in the Golan Heights
Only a month before the mass vulture poisoning in Botswana, the Israeli Nature & Parks Authority “arrested a man suspected of poisoning nearly half of the rare vulture population in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights,” the BBC reported on May 13, 2019.
“The suspect, in his 30s, was detained in the Bedouin village of Tuba-Zangariyye,” the BBC report continued. “Eight out of 20 griffon vultures remaining in the area were found dead,” after the suspect allegedly “spread poison over the carcass of a cow to kill predators.
“A fox and two jackals were also found dead,” the BBC noted, “while two sick vultures were taken to a wildlife clinic for treatment.
“Officials in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights have been trying to increase the vulture count there amid a dramatic decline in the population over the past 20 years,” the BBC continued, “from 130 in 1998 to around 20 prior to the latest deaths. Many vultures have been poisoned, allegedly by farmers whose herds are threatened by predators.”
Targeting wolves so farmers won’t poison vultures
To mollify farmers who might otherwise poison non-target species, especially vultures, while trying to eradicate native predators, the Israeli Agriculture & Rural Development Ministry “is offering a reward for every wolf that cattle and sheep farmers kill,” reported Zafrir Rinat for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on March 13, 2018.
“The program, which provides 2,000 shekels ($580) for hunting down a mature wolf and 500 shekels per cub, is being carried out in coordination with the Israel Nature & Parks Authority, with the authority’s consent,” Rinat explained.
“The parks authority said the policy of permitting wolves to be shot to protect agriculture is not new,” Rinate added. “It was instituted in 1998 after a large number of wild animals were killed by poison laid by farmers who were trying to put a halt to wolves who were killing their livestock.
“The Golan Heights is the primary habitat of the country’s wolves and the region is among the most densely populated with wolves in the world,” Rinat wrote. “Between 2008 and 2012, on average 48 wolves a year were shot in the Golan Heights, according to the parks authority. By contrast, between 2013 and 2017, the annual rate dropped to around 30.”
Kenya “Rapid Response Poisoning Protocol”
Kenya has long been fighting vulture poisoning, both as practiced by poachers and as collateral damage when farmers try to kill livestock predators. Marabou storks, meanwhile, who are also carrion-eaters with vulture-like appearance and habits, but seem to thrive more easily in proximity to humans, have taken over much former vulture habitat, especially in and around Nairobi, the Kenyan national capital.
Augmenting the vulture preservation efforts of the Kenya Wildlife Service and other law enforcement agencies, Kenya has a “Rapid Response Poisoning Protocol,” staffed and funded by Bird Life International, the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust, the U.S.-based Peregrine Fund, and the Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association.
The protocol emphasizes educating farmers against poisoning predators, responding promptly to reports of vulture poisoning, removing poisoned carcasses, and treating vultures who have ingested poison.
The Rapid Response Poisoning Protocol was in January 2019 credited with saving four of six lappet-faced vultures and Rüppell’s vultures who were found alive among 20 dead vultures surrounding a poisoned hyena carcass near the northern border of Masai Mara National Park.
“Vultures are unintended casualties in the tension between livestock farmers and predators such as lions, hyenas, and leopards,” wrote Jessica Law of Bird Life International.
“Without compensation in place [for livestock lost to predators], farmers often resort to lacing their dead livestock with easily accessible agro-chemicals with the intention to kill predators – but they end up killing far more,” Law explained.
Law said the Rapid Response Poisoning Protocol had reduced vulture poisoning in the Masai Mara by 50% in two years.
Overworking draft animals kills vultures
Earlier, accidental poisoning was the major threat to vultures, especially in India and Pakistan. More than 95% of the once common Oriental white-backed vulture vanished from the Indian subcontinent in under 10 years, with similar declines suspected in the populations of long-billed and slender-billed vultures.
Washington State University microbiologist J. Lindsay Oaks, who often worked with the Peregrine Fund, in January 2003 identified ingestion of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac as the problem, finding that the source of exposure was the use of diclofenac by farmers to keep lame oxen, buffalo, horses, mules, and donkeys on the job pulling carts and plows.
When draft animals died, their carcasses were often left for scavengers.
Residual diclofenac does not seem to harm mammalian scavengers, including dogs, jackals, and foxes. But cumulative exposure turned out to cause kidney failure in vultures.
Slightly more than 11% of the carcasses of working animals that Oaks tested proved to contain diclofenac. Based on Oaks’ studies, the Indian government banned the use and production of diclofenac in May 2006.
By Oaks’ death, on January 15, 2011, at age 51, the Indian vulture population had begun to make an ongoing slow comeback.
Why we need old buzzards
Biologists Evan Buechley and Çağan Şekercioğlu warned in the May 2016 edition of the journal Biological Conservation that “Populations of most vulture species around the world are now either declining or on the brink of extinction. Losses of vultures can allow other scavengers to flourish,” including crows, gulls, rats, jackals, and street dogs, all of whom tend to be much more problematic to crops and livestock.
“Proliferation of such scavengers could bring bacteria and viruses from carcasses into human cities,” Buechley and Şekercioğlu alleged.
“Vultures are highly efficient consumers of carrion, sometimes locating and consuming carcasses within an hour, before other forms of decay can set in,” Buechley and Şekercioğlu argued. “By some estimates, in Central America, South America and Africa, vultures eat more meat than all predators combined. And vultures’ stomachs are highly acidic, killing nearly all bacteria or viruses that may be present in carrion. Combined with the fact that vultures rarely come in contact with humans, vultures serve as a barrier to prevent diseases from proliferating in dead animals and spreading to humans. Other facultative scavengers are not so adapted, and could pass along those diseases into human populations, as many are already fixtures in cities.”
On the other hand, Buechley and Şekercioğlu noted, “Several inherent ecological traits likely contribute to vultures’ extinction risk, including their large body masses, slow reproductive rates and highly specialized diets.
“The greatest external threat to vultures, however,” Buechley and Şekercioğlu said, “is poisoning.”
Buechley and Şekercioğlu mentioned that California condors, often consuming the remains of animals killed by hunters, ingested so much lead shot that lead poisoning had reduced the California condor population to just 22 individuals as of 1982. Captive breeding and efforts to reduce the use of lead shot, both of which continue, have gradually brought the California condor population to more than 400, who range over southern California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California, Mexico.
USDA Wildlife Services killed 10,000 vultures in 2018
Elsewhere in the U.S., vultures remain not only unappreciated but persecuted.
USDA Wildlife Services in 2018 reported killing 9,276 black vultures and dispersing 64,438, also killing 1,028 turkey vultures, dispersing 79,212.
If the laws of economics governed ecology, the alleged oversupply of black vultures and turkey vultures in the U.S., chiefly in the Southeast and southern Midwest, could be transferred to the parts of the world where vultures are in undersupply, if not actual demand.
But, even setting aside the impracticality of live-trapping and translocating vultures by the thousands to far parts of the world, such a project would be widely seen as a further threat to the declining native vulture populations, with whom translocated black vultures and turkey vultures might compete for carrion and habitat.
Geographic reality is that black vultures and turkey vultures are unlikely to find their own way to potential new foreign homelands, even with the help of hurricane winds, and are unlikely to be welcomed, should a few somehow be swept alive from Florida to Africa
Ecological reality, though, is that vultures are a key component of healthy ecosystems, and the best way for anywhere to ensure having them is to look after those who are already there.