It is mind-numbingly hot in the private game reserve that envelopes the Kalahari Rest Camp, a bush lodge situated just outside of Kang. This dusty and seemingly meaningless speck on the southern Botswana map is in fact an important trucking stop along the Trans-Kalahari Highway. Connecting Johannesburg, the beating heart of South Africa’s economy, to Walvis Bay in Namibia, this 1900km stretch of paved road - with the towns along the way - plays a key role in the southern African trade ecosystem.
As the sun mercilessly flogs the thirsty landscape, which hasn’t seen rain in many moons, two African ground squirrels are chasing one another on the rocky dirt path prior disappearing in their den. A bit further up the road, Beckie Garbett from Raptors Botswana leans back in the driver seat of her all-terrain vehicle, her eyes firmly locked on a handful of circling vulture silhouettes. Using the thermals, the birds effortlessly glide through the blue vastness, stretching out their wings and aiming their their heads at the ground below.
Vulture Knowledge is Power
“We have put bait out on the open space down the road, and are waiting for the birds to land and start feeding,” she explains, adding that her colleague is keeping an eye on the bait from a concealed bird hide closer to the scene. “When there are enough vultures eating, we will launch a net and capture them. We will then draw some blood and take a feather from each bird, give them a wing tag, and release them.”
In addition, a select number of birds - mainly Lappet-faced Vultures - will be fitted with a GPS transmitter the size of a small mobile phone. These devices will give Garbett and her colleagues a set of coordinates every few hours, indicating the bird’s location. “The GPS transmitters are very valuable in this regard. They have for instance taught us that Lappets can travel up to 800km per day. We didn’t know that before,” she says. “This kind of information is crucial if we want to protect them. A Lappet might be safe here in Botswana, but what if it flies to where it isn’t?”
Garbett’s emphasis on Lappet-faced vultures, which with a wingspan of up to 3 meters are the largest of southern African species, is directly linked to their vulnerable status. Birdlife South Africa, an organisation that promotes the study, conservation, en enjoyment of African wild birds and their habitats, estimates that there are only 5700 mature adults left - the lowest number out of all southern African vulture species.
Peril of Poison
While Lappet-faced Vultures might be the most threatened of carrion eating raptors in southern Africa, the birds are not alone in their plight. In September last year, a coalition of nature conservation organisations, which includes Raptors Botswana, announced that the number of southern African vultures plummeted by 50-60% over the past three decades. These birds face a similar faith elsewhere, the group says. Western African vultures have for instance dropped by over 95% over the past thirty years, and across Africa seven of eleven vulture species are listed as globally threatened.
So what and who is to blame for this, and why? The main culprit in Botswana and nearby countries such as South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe is poisoning by farmers and poachers. “Some farmers in Botswana, have reverted to poisoning of deceased livestock to keep predators at bay,” Garbett explains. She adds that national parks in one of the world’s largest diamond exporters are not hermetically sealed off as opposed to in for instance South Africa, and that this often results in conflict between humans and wildlife. “Farmers who poison cattle cadavers to get to predators, and protect their livestock, often end up accidentally poisoning vultures which feed on these toxic carcasses.”
Fortunately, most farmers are approachable and open to discuss ways to protect their livestock without harming the vultures, Garbett says: “Most farmers don’t even realise that what they are doing, which is illegal by the way, is hurting the vultures. They even tend to like the birds as they clean up dead animals, and hereby prevent the spread of diseases such as rabies and anthrax. Vultures are immune for these diseases and can break them down in their gut, preventing outbreaks.′
The Other Side of Poaching
Poisoning by poachers on the other hand is a far bigger problem. Illicit hunters target vultures directly, after all, not because the birds are valuable like Rhino horn, but because they want to protect themselves and their illegal activities. “As soon as an animal dies on the ground, vultures start circling in the sky,” Garbett says. “Sometimes there can be 200 birds in the sky. This may draw the attention of anti-poaching patrols and rangers. In July 2013, some 700 birds died after feeding on a poisoned elephant carcass in the Caprivi Strip.”
Poisoning by poachers has impacted Garbett’s research: six of the fourteen Lappet-faced Vultures that were fitted with GPS transmitters have died as a result. “Once a transmitter gives us the same location day after day, we know we have a problem,” she explains.
Whilst anti vulture poisoning by poachers is a huge problem across southern Africa, Garbett says it is difficult to say anything about the scope: “The southern African region is so vast. There are so many places we can’t get to. There could be hundreds more poisoning episodes than we know about, simply because we can’t get to them.”
Botswana Raptors founder Glyn Maudé agrees and adds that the GPS transmitters, in a way, play a crucial role in determining the extent of poisoning. “We found dead birds in very remote areas,” he says. “If it weren’t for our transmitters, they would never have been found. The poisoning incidents we know about, are the tip of the iceberg. I am convinced of that.”
Mortality Rate is Crazy
The African vulture situation has grabbed the attention of the international nature conservationist community too. “The mortality rate is crazy. At this rate, southern Africa is losing a third of its vulture population every two years,” says Richard Reading. As the founder and director of the Department of Conservation Biology at the Denver Zoo in the United States, he researched vultures around the world. Currently, he working closely with Raptors Botswana and organisations such as Kanabo Conservation Link (KCL).
Another secondary but important consequence of anti vulture poisoning is that it doesn’t just kill the birds who ingest the poison. “One of the dead birds we found recently, was nesting. That nest failed, meaning two vultures died - and not one,” Garbett sats. “This is problematic. Vulture chick success rate is 50% without the poisoning threat.”
Reading agrees. “Scavengers like Hyenas are affected, too.” he says. “The poison is not selective. It is broadcast poisoning.”
When asking Garbett, Maudé, Reading, and other vulture experts about what it takes to protect vultures, the most overarching answer is that more data is needed, and that it is needed now. Maudé: “We can’t protect them, and we can’t find solutions if we don’t know what is going on.”
Vulture Restaurant to the Rescue
One of the initiatives that aims to enable scientists to better understand vultures and their behaviour is the KCL vulture restaurant. Established a year or so ago at Thakadu Game Reserve, the facility is situated 240km north of Kang, in Ghanzi. Here, vultures are fed poison-free carcasses from a local feedlot. “We only feed them occasionally, as we don’t want to disrupt their foraging behaviour,” explains KCL director and co-founder Hanri Ehlers. “The birds seem to like it here. When we started out, we had no nests. Last year, we have seven!”
Apart from helping scientists and nature conservation researchers obtaining crucial vulture data, the restaurant has the objective to provide the birds a safe place to eat. “The carcasses we feed them, are guaranteed free from poisons and other harmful substances such as diclofenac,” Ehlers continues. “This anti-inflammatory, which is commonly used in the livestock sector to treat lameness and fever, causes acute kidney failure in vultures when feeding dead cattle that were treated with this drug. Every farmer or feedlot has fatalities.”
India is a prime example of the disastrous impact of diclofenac on vultures. In the 1990s, the drug killed 95% of the country’s vulture population, resulting in 48.800 additional rabies fatalities. This cost the government of India, which leads the world in terms of rabies related deaths, a whooping $34 billion.
Vulture Head Medicine
Besides poisoning and cattle drugs, traditional healers – in South Africa known as sangomas – also threaten the future of African vultures. “Traditional medicine, or muti, made of vulture heads supposedly gives you clairvoyant powers,” says Gerhard Verdoorn, director of the Griffon Poison Information Centre in South Africa. “The head is therefore the most valuable part, with a street value of around R600. Vultures are poisoned by unscrupulous individuals, just for their heads. The feet are used too, but we are not sure for what. What we can say.”
Verdoorn stresses that genuine sangomas are not to blame for this. “Real healers are even against the poisoning and mass harvesting of vultures. According to what they believe, a real traditional healer is only allowed to use vulture parts of a bird he or she has caught and killed him or herself. The South African council of traditional healers is very much against what is happening to the vultures right now. I have dealt with them many times.”
Whilst vulture muti is not a massive problem in Botswana, it is gaining popularity in nearby countries such as South Africa, Lesotho, and Swaziland. That however, doesn’t mean the birds Garbett has studied and tagged are safe from harm: “As I said, Lappets can fly 800km in one day. This makes them vulnerable, even when they are safe here.”
(Image Credit: Hawk Mountain)
Miriam Mannak focusses on politics, economics, business, human and social development, gender-based issues, humanitarian topics, and nature conservation. Over the past decade and a half or so, her byline has appeared in over 70 publications in South Africa, Europe, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere. This article was first published on Contributoria.