The Bizarre Reason Elephant Poachers Are Now Targeting Vultures

To evade detection, Africa’s professional elephant killers are silencing vultures with poison pills.

(Photo: Arno Meintjes Wildlife/Getty)

Sep 6, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

How's this for collateral damage.

Hell-bent on offing any witnesses to their deadly operation, elephant poachers in Africa have begun killing vultures en masse by lacing the discarded pachyderm bodies with poison pills.

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, you still might be able to catch the poachers! Go! Go! Go!

In July, a reported 600 vultures were found poisoned to death next to a single elephant carcass in Namibia’s Botswana National Park. Similar incidents have occurred in Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Botswana in recent years, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

This new-ish threat couldn’t come at a worse time for vultures. In West Africa, vulture populations have declined by 42 percent over the past 30 years. A January 2013 study showed that, because vultures fly long distances to feed outside national parks, they are increasingly at risk of chemical poisoning in agriculture areas. The drug that most worries conservationists is called diclofenac, reports Discovery.

Diclofenac builds up in the bodies of vultures after they feed on dead cattle treated with the anti-inflamatory drug. Kidney failure may eventually kill the vultures after they accumulate enough of the drug.

But so what? A bottom-feeding animal you’ve actually never seen in person is getting poisoned by horrible people. Sucks, but who cares? Well, you should. Eco-system-wise, vultures are pretty dang relevant.

Writes National Geographic:

They are nature’s most efficient and effective clean-up crew. They go about their daily business without any fanfare. Yet, in their little appreciated role, they are ensuring that our increasingly polluted planet remains a bit less polluted from the bacteria and other pathogens that accumulate on carcasses and at garbage dumps.

Unfortunately, a happy ending for this gruesome tale isn’t anywhere on the horizon. Fueled by rising demand in Asia, where elephant tusks are turned into rings, chopsticks, and countless other trinkets, conservation groups estimate that poachers kill tens of thousands of elephants each year, including an estimated 25,000 in 2012 alone. The worldwide trade in ivory has doubled since 2007.

Conservationists had hoped that an arms race with poachers—over the last few years, African governments had been giving game rangers better weapons, and have even put spotter planes and unmanned drones into the air—might quell the tide of blood. But, alas, it hasn’t. (See above.)

So what’s the next step? Well, some in the wildlife community want to tackle the poaching problem not at the supply side, but rather at the demand end. Will Asian cultures listen? At all? Even a little bit? And if they do, will it be in time to stop the certain demise of elephants, and by proxy, vultures? To be continued...