Wildlife Poisoning Continues to Take a Toll on Africa’s Vultures
Thigh-high grass sways in the breeze as the effusive birdsong, so characteristic of the tropics, continues despite the midday heat. In this otherwise tranquil landscape, sights and sounds can be deceiving. It is only your nose that alerts you to the calamity that recently transpired.
Burnt flesh is a smell that once registered in the brain can never be forgotten. It is remarkable for its distinctiveness, perhaps more so because the circumstances of encountering it are often traumatic.
The charred pit containing ashes and a dozen or so half-burnt corpses of vultures is the first and often the only visual clue. Usually finding a site after poison has drained the life out of its victims is impossible: The landscape is vast, there is nothing left to tell the story.
It is only through the vigilance of a Kenyan colleague that this story is being told at all. If not for his awareness, the silent death of yet another innocent group of scavengers would have gone unknown, unrecorded and unremarkable.
Yet here I stood picking among the remains that were left unburnt after a crew was sent to dispose of the carcasses to prevent further contamination. I wanted samples to test in the lab. This is the only way to determine the types of pesticides that are widely misused to poison wildlife.
In this case the target was three lions that had made a meal of someone’s cattle. In retaliation three cow carcasses were baited with poison. The lions never took the bait, but vultures did. Thirty-two critically endangered Rüppell’s and White-backed vultures perished after unwittingly feasting on the contaminated carcasses. I came to record the evidence, because without it these heinous acts are often denied.