Poachers Are Killing Thousands of African Vultures to Hide Evidence of Their Crimes

The scavengers show where to find illegally killed wildlife. Now they face extinction, with dire consequences for humans.

(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.

Poachers have killed so many vultures in southern Africa that at least four species now face extinction, according to a report issued last week by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and 11 other environmental organizations. The loss of the scavenging birds could speed the spread of diseases throughout the continent, the report warns.

Poachers don’t target the vultures directly. Instead, they use cyanide and other poisons to kill the birds and hide evidence of their crimes. That’s because park rangers and other law enforcement officials use the sight of circling scavengers as an indication that an animal has died.

Following the birds can lead rangers to a newly poached rhino, elephant, or other animal. Poisoning the carcasses of animals they slay, which the vultures then consume, gives poachers more time to flee the scene, according to the report.

Poachers have poisoned nearly 1,500 vultures in southern Africa over the past two years, the report says. One of the worst cases occurred in Namibia last August, when as many as 600 vultures died after feeding on a single poisoned elephant carcass.

The birds breed very slowly—usually raising only one chick a year—so each death can have a decades-long impact. Some species have seen population declines of 50 percent, while others have dropped by as much as 97 percent over the past 30 years.

The vultures’ downward spiral could have a dangerous effect on human health as well, the experts warn.

“Vultures are magnificent birds that provide a major service to African society by cleaning up dead animals and helping to prevent the spread of diseases,” said André Botha, chair of the IUCN vulture specialist group. “If they disappear, Africa will face an ecological catastrophe.”

Without vultures, the ready supply of rotting meat will also trigger a population boom in feral dogs. A similar consequence has occurred in India, where more than 99 percent of the country’s vultures have died out over the past few decades.

There, the birds eat the carcasses of cattle that have been treated with a veterinary drug called diclofenac, which causes fatal renal failure in vultures. A 2008 study estimated that feral dog populations have grown by 5.5 million in India, resulting in more than 38.5 million dog bites and tens of thousands of human deaths from rabies, according to a report from conservation group BirdLife International.

India banned diclofenac in 2006, but it is still widely used there. Ironically, Ethiopia and some other countries use strychnine to poison feral dogs, which has its own detrimental effect on vulture populations.

“It is critical that African governments become actively involved in this issue,” Moses Selebatso of Raptors Botswana said at an April workshop held in Spain to discuss the crisis, according to the report.

“Saving African vultures will require enforcement of policies on a continental scale,” he said. “Science and documentation of poisoning will support recovery, but it will be the people of Africa and their governments that ultimately save the African vultures.”

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