Urgent and Expansive Action Needed as Critically Endangered Vultures are Poisoned in Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya – The survival of Critically Endangered vultures and other endangered species in Kenya is threatened as a result of illegal wildlife poisoning, highlighted by an incident reported in the country recently. Prolonged and worsening poisoning activities in the country targeting predators, means vultures are facing a severe threat of extinction.

Birdlife International, The Peregrine Fund, Nature Kenya, and the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust are deeply concerned by a poisoning incident that has killed nearly 40 Critically Endangered vultures adjacent to the world famous Masai Mara National Reserve. Retaliatory poisoning usually occurs when livestock is attacked by predators such as lions, hyenas, and leopards. Livestock farmers resort to lacing their dead livestock with easily accessible agro-chemicals with the intention to kill predators but vultures that scavenge gregariously on dead animals succumb to the poison and hundreds die as a result.

The dead vultures were reported in some of the conservancies bordering the areas north of the Masai Mara. These conservancies have been instrumental in creating habitat for wildlife such as carnivores, while also leading to increased tourism potential and income for local Maasai communities in the area who have benefited through job creation and revenue from leasing their land for wildlife and tourism.

Since 9th February this year, about 40 dead vultures have been observed over a two-week period along a radius of 15 km from the village of Kishermoruak, about 30 km north-east of Masai Mara’s Sekenani Gate. Initial findings suggest that the vultures consumed a poisoned livestock carcass outside the conservancies and flew in and were found dead inside some of the conservancies. So far, a point source of the Maasai Mara poisoning has not yet been identified.

These vulture deaths coincide with a spate of other retaliatory poisonings across Africa where on 15th February six lions and 72 vultures were reported to have been poisoned in the Ruaha-Katavi landscape, Tanzania, on 25th of February 103 vultures in Mbashene, Southern Mozambique were killed after feeding on a poisoned elephant carcass and 50 more were poisoned in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique.

“Our greatest challenge is that vultures travel vast distances and can transcend borders into Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Sudan. But poisoning is happening at our doorstep and we are losing our country’s natural heritage at an alarming rate. The vulture problem is not really a vulture problem but a predator problem and a handful of people are killing the messenger (vultures) which does not bode well for a healthy environment” said Eric Ole Reson, Program Coordinator of the Masai Mara Wildlife and Conservancies Association. “We need to appreciate the vital ecosystem services that vultures provide – healthy vulture populations mean healthy people, wildlife, and livestock”.

“People are poisoning because they have grievances and we are listening to them to help reduce poisoning levels and reverse the declining trend of vulture populations. By identifying key poisoning hotspots, we are focusing our conservation interventions in those areas to create champions and significantly reduce poisoning to zero levels. This requires a drastic change in people’s attitudes and behavior and will take time,” said Dr Munir Virani, Director of Global Conservation Strategy of The Peregrine Fund.

Vulture populations globally are declining rapidly primarily due to intentional and unintentional poisoning but also from habitat loss, energy expansion, and lack of food and as a result are considered one of the most threatened groups of animals in the world. Africa has eleven species of which six are found nowhere else. Six of the eight species that occur in Kenya are highly threatened with extinction according to the IUCN Red List of threatened species. This means that without conservation intervention, these species have very little chance of survival and may possibly go extinct within our lifetimes.

Vultures provide vital ecosystem services in African savannahs by recycling nutrients, rapidly consuming carcasses and keeping diseases at bay. Keeping nature clean is vital for human and environmental health, and in doing so, they play a key role in sustaining the charismatic animals that are vital in maintaining Kenya’s tourism industry.

BirdLife International, Nature Kenya, The Peregrine Fund and the Kenya Birds of Prey Trust with support from Foundation Segre, the BAND Foundation, the Narok County Government and Kenya Wildlife Service, have been actively involved in vulture conservation activities to reduce wildlife poisoning in the Maasai Mara through awareness creation, identification of poisoning hotspots and engagement of local communities to appreciate the key role that vultures play in the ecosystem.

“The positive spin on this national disaster – that is illegal wildlife poisoning, is that there is heightened awareness from within the Maasai communities. Rangers and ground staff at the conservancies are actively finding dead vultures and reporting them but most importantly burning the carcasses which would otherwise lead to secondary poisoning. This would not have happened a decade ago when many poisoning cases would go unreported. We are providing people on the ground with the knowledge and tools to respond to poisoning events.” said Dr. Paul Matiku, Executive Director of Nature Kenya.

Masumi Gudka, Vulture Coordinator for Birdlife International said “Illegal wildlife poisoning is a huge problem for the future survival of vultures and carnivores across the continent. It is very encouraging to see a strong network of people at all levels, working together to respond to a poisoning incident and help create awareness about the value of vultures for the Masai Mara and beyond.”

“Although the recent poisonings of vultures in the greater Mara is a tragedy there has never before been such a cohesive and positive response to saving still living individuals, cleaning up the still deadly vulture carcasses and investigating the source of the problem. Local communities, conservancy managers and rangers, NGOs and government bodies now recognize the gravity of these deaths and may act in time to save these imperiled species, “ said Simon Thomsett, Director, and Trustee of the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust.

Dr. Ralph Buij of Wageningen University in the Netherlands added: “It’s hopeful that people are increasingly seeing vultures for what they are, critical components of healthy ecosystems. Elsewhere in Asia, their contribution to minimizing the spread of dangerous disease such as rabies has been estimated at ten thousands of human lives and billions of dollars in health care costs. Every single vulture saved by these recent efforts is worth its weight in gold.”

The existence of vultures and other important bird species is crucial to any society because they are productive and provide countless services to humanity and biodiversity. Their survival is not just protected under Kenya’s obligations under international law, but also under Kenya’s Vision 2030 commitments.

The protection of these birds and other wildlife is a primary duty for everyone and as Kenya is a signatory to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), authorities should take decisive actions to protect these vultures and help prevent their extinction

The aforementioned organizations stand ready to assist the Government of Kenya and communities to ensure that their activities are carried out in a manner that does not threaten the existence of vultures.