Spotlight on poisonings

An estimated 10 000 vultures have been poisoned across the region in the past five years, of which 6 000 were killed in Namibia and adjacent parts of Botswana.

24 July 2019 | Tourism

A brief reprieve from a deadly poison-laced assault on scavengers and predators by small-stock farmers in Namibia and the rest of southern Africa over the past few decades has given way to a renewed and catastrophic attack by commercial poachers.

An estimated 10 000 vultures have been poisoned across the region in the past five years, of which 6 000 were killed in Namibia and adjacent parts of Botswana, as a result of poachers poisoning elephant carcasses they had illegally killed for ivory.

In June alone, more than 700 vultures of five species, in addition to other wildlife, were killed by poison in five southern and east African countries. As a result the Namibian Chamber of Environment (NCE) this month joined several local and regional organisations to submit an urgent plea to the African Union (AU), urging for cross-border efforts to address the threat. “It cannot effectively be addressed by a single nation. A continent-wide initiative is needed,” NCE CEO Chris Brown informed members this week.

The submission, addressed to AU chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, calls on the AU secretary-general and member stakes to undertake several urgent steps and collaborate among each other to tackle the crisis head-on.

The signatories to the letter, including the IUCN SSC Vulture Specialist Group, Birdlife International, the Zambia Lion Project, Birdlife Botswana, Aplori Nigeria, and many others, also warn that vultures are not the only wildlife species threatened by the use of poison.

Nevertheless, of the five vulture species most impacted, three of them are currently listed as critically endangered, while the remaining two are listed as endangered.

The AU submission explains poison is also used to respond to human-wildlife conflict, but that the masking of commercial poaching activities currently “poses the largest and most immediate threat to vultures”.

The experts warn that populations of these slow-breeding species, which are also subject to a range of other threats, “cannot sustain losses of this scale and thus face a significant threat of extinction”.

Relentless threats

“Wildlife poisoning has long been the major cause of mortality for many species of scavengers and predators, perhaps best-documented in vultures and eagles,” Brown underlined.

However, previously the main source of poisoning stemmed from mainly small-stock farmers who “waged an ongoing battle against predators such as jackal, caracal, leopard and hyena”.

Studies showed that for every member of a target species killed by a farmer's poison - not necessarily the individual animal that was guilty of a killing, just a member of the species - over 100 non-target animals were killed in Namibia, mainly eagles and vultures, but also many other species, including bat-eared foxes, Cape foxes, aardwolf and mongooses.

“In fact, anything that eats meat,” the NCE said.

Brown said this “scorched earth approach to farming”, which was allowed to continue for decades, had a deadly impact on many species and particularly on the distribution of vulture species.

With the decline in small-stock farming in many parts of Namibia in recent years, and the conversion of land uses to wildlife and tourism, a hopeful, but “slow modest increase in vulture numbers” was observed.

This slight gain, however, has in recent years been pushed back again with the increased poisoning of carcasses by poachers.

“This is an Africa-wide crisis, but with the main impacts in southern and east Africa, which have the most remaining wildlife areas,” the NCE warned. Brown stressed that it is time African countries to pay attention to this issue and work together to address the problem.

“Commercial poaching is a cross-boundary and internationally-driven crime, often linked to other syndicate crimes such as drugs, arms, human trafficking and money laundering.”


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