The incident took place just south of world famous Chobe National Park. Two tawny eagles and 537 vultures were found dead near the carcasses, which had their tusks chopped out. The poisoning killed 10 Cape, 4 lappet-faced, 17 white-hooded, 28 hooded and 468 white-backed vultures.
This might be the largest mass poisoning of vultures in Southern Africa. In 2013, 500 were poisoned in Zambezi (formerly Caprivi Strip) under similar circumstances, which was then deemed the highest such killing.
“This is one of the biggest knocks to vultures in our history,” writes the vulture programme VulPro. “It is breeding season, so many are adults which means not only are they directly affected but their eggs/chicks have died too.”
Vultures are very good at finding carrion and will soon circle and land. This is a giveaway for poachers wishing to remain in the area, so the birds have become a secondary casualty of rising poaching numbers in Botswana, a country that just lifted the ban on hunting.
The poisoning of carcasses shows a high level of sophistication in the activities of the poaching syndicates and would massively multiply the damage wrought on Botswana’s famous wildlife. While raptors are the first responders, other predators soon follow.
A poisoned carcass is likely to kill lions, hyenas, jackals and other smaller vertebrates as well as a range of smaller birds. The National Parks dispatched a team to decontaminate the area and the poison was being analysed.
Vultures provide essential ecosystem services and are vital for the healthy functioning of ecosystems, in many cases keeping them free of contagious diseases. They have extremely corrosive stomach acid that allows them to consume rotting animal corpses. These scavenged leftovers are often infected with anthrax, botulinum toxins and rabies, which would otherwise kill other animals.
White-backed vultures are listed as critically endangered in the IUCN Red Data Book, with a very low chick survival rate.
A research report published by the Society for Conservation Biology has warned that many of Africa’s vultures were collapsing towards extinction.
“African vultures are in crisis, their populations declining at a rate which, in at least six cases, meets or exceeds the threshold for species qualifying as Critically Endangered.
“The recent rapid increase in elephant and rhino poaching throughout Africa has led to a substantial increase in vulture mortality, as poachers have turned to poisoning carcasses specifically to eliminate vultures, whose overhead circling might otherwise reveal the poachers’ illicit activities.
“The illegal trade in vulture body parts for use in traditional medicine is also a significant threat that is increasing in intensity.”
The incident throws light on a growing problem of elephant poaching in Botswana which is of extreme concern for a country with a fifth of its income derived from wildlife tourism. Botswana is home to one-third of Africa’s savanna elephants – 130,000 – making it critical for their conservation.
A recent study found 156 elephants with their skulls split open and tusks removed, a huge increase over the previous survey. It estimated 385 poached for the whole country. All carcasses were under a year old and within five “hot spots”.
The study said poaching on the scale of hundreds of elephants a year had been occurring in northern Botswana since 2017 or possibly earlier. It indicated that an escalation in Botswana was likely. It was an important early warning of what could become a national tragedy in Botswana. DM