Our Burning Planet

KILLING FIELDS

Kruger Park vultures felled by poachers’ highly toxic poison

Kruger Park vultures felled by poachers’ highly toxic poison
White-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) scavenging a wildebeest carcass. (Photo: iStock)

The birds often die en masse in the national park when they feast on poisoned carcasses. The poisoning might well be deliberate, to prevent circling vultures from giving away the poachers’ location.

Poachers are using the highly toxic insecticide aldicarb as a deadly weapon in the devastating poaching war against South Africa’s wildlife in the Kruger National Park.

The crystalline compound, which was used for pest control in agriculture but has been banned locally for more than a decade, has been linked to the killing of more than 2,000 vultures in the park in recent years.

In the latest such incident, which happened in the far northern region, rangers discovered the carcasses of 86 vultures scattered near Grootvlei Dam, which is close to the park’s border with Mozambique.

Section ranger Joe Nkuna said staff at the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Hoedspruit, Limpopo, alerted park rangers in early March that they had detected that one of their tagged vultures was not moving. Using GPS coordinates supplied by the centre, Nkuna and a team of rangers managed to track down the bird – but it was too late.

Poachers had set up a snare that entrapped a buffalo. Nkuna said the poachers then managed to harvest some meat from the animal, after which they poisoned the remainder of the carcass.

“Vultures came to clean up. Instead of [the vultures] cleaning up, the [poisoned] carcass cleaned them up. When we got here, there were dead vultures all over the place. It was terrible,” Nkuna said during a recent media tour hosted by South African National Parks (SanParks).

Read more on Daily Maverick: Beheadings and poisoning of dozens of vultures in KwaZulu-Natal points to ‘good luck’ traditional muthi dealers

A black-backed jackal, a hyena, two bateleur eagles and a marabou stork, all of which had come to scavenge the buffalo carcass, were also killed on site.

Nkuna said the poachers’ tracks showed they had headed east towards the Lebombo Mountains, which marks the border between South Africa and Mozambique.

Regional ranger Don English said aldicarb is so deadly that every animal that ingests it “dies within five minutes”.

Aldicarb is the active ingredient in the defunct pesticide brand Temik and is also known colloquially as “two-step” or “galephirimi”. Despite being banned for years, it is still sold on the black market, primarily as rodent poison.

Reasons for poisoning

Kruger Park

Rangers go on daily foot patrols in the Kruger National Park, but they are not able to cover all areas because of understaffing problems. The park is experiencing an increase in the number of snaring and poisoning cases. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media)

The poisoning of vultures is not a new phenomenon. According to the Vulture Conservation Foundation, the birds are typically targeted for two reasons: to be used in the making of bogus muthi or traditional medicine, and because their presence in the sky as they circle near animal carcasses can alert the authorities to the presence of poachers.

“Vulture poaching started off as muthi poaching, for medicinal purposes. But now it’s not done for muthi. The majority of vulture poaching is done to curb detection [of poaching activities],” said English.

Read more on Daily Maverick: Poachers poison hundreds of Botswana vultures

Nkuna added: “I have no evidence that they [the poachers] did come to harvest some of the vultures or some parts from the hyena because the carcasses were already decomposed.”

Known as the “sanitation brigade” of the bush, vultures are renowned for their sharp eyesight, which enables them to locate the site of a carcass quickly.

A 2018 report by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), titled Wildlife Poisoning in the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, stated: “The overhead circling of vultures has long been used to locate dead wildlife. Vultures have been pointing rangers to poached animals, sometimes alerting them to a poaching incident while still in progress.”

The USAID report stated that another cause of wildlife poisoning was retaliation by local communities, which used poisoned bait to deal with animal predators killing their livestock. 

Indiscriminate killer

Kruger Park

Rangers walk past the site where the carcasses of more than 80 vultures, which were poisoned by poachers, were burnt to prevent them from causing more casualties. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media)

Vultures travel vast distances to feed and breed. Some tagged vultures have been recorded travelling more than 1,000km in a matter of days.

This means that the poisoning of the birds in the Kruger National Park doesn’t only affect populations found locally, but also those found elsewhere in southern Africa.

And, as English noted, poisoning takes the lives of far more animals than the poachers’ intended prey.

“Poison poaching is more devastating,” he said. “Poison poaching is indiscriminate – [it kills everything] from insects to the biggest predators.”

Chillingly, when the then Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries issued its notice prohibiting the “acquisition, import, export, possession, sale, use and disposal of agricultural remedies” that contained aldicarb in 2013, it warned that “the illegal use of aldicarb has previously been associated with severe poisoning of dogs and human beings in South Africa”.

It is believed that criminals use it to poison dogs at homes they want to rob.

Despite the long-standing ban on aldicarb, it is still easily available from informal traders. In the Polokwane CBD, vendors at the Indian Centre taxi rank sell it in plastic sachets for as little as R30, risking exposure if the sachets tear.

The pesticide has even been used in suicides. In July 2021, Basetsana Moshoeshoe wa ha Makhabane launched a petition against it on the website change.org after her sister took her own life by ingesting aldicarb.

Poaching continues unabated

The use of aldicarb has not only affected vultures, but has almost decimated the lion population in the Punda Maria area in the Kruger National Park.

English said the bones of poisoned predators were harvested by poaching syndicates and sent off to the East as part of the illicit trade in wildlife.

The northern part of the park borders Mozambique to the east, Zimbabwe to the north and several impoverished rural areas in South Africa to the west.

Read more on Daily Maverick: When illegal wildlife trade meets muthi, vultures teeter on the brink of extinction – conservationists

“We’re getting hit from three sides,” English lamented.

According to SanParks’ annual report for 2022/23, poaching decreased by 49.74% in the Kruger National Park, which lost 98 rhinos as opposed to the 195 in 2021/22.

But the report noted that there had been an increase in elephant poaching: the park lost 32 elephants in the 2022/23 financial year, whereas nine had been poached during the previous reporting period.

“Rangers reported 856 poacher activities, down from 1,262 in the previous fiscal year. In response, 24 arrests were made and 15 firearms recovered, down from 58 and 31 respectively in 2021/22,” the report noted.

In addition, 3,350 snares were removed from the park and 230 animals were killed through snare poaching.

Interestingly, the report reveals that “the increase in elephant poaching in the Kruger National Park is driven largely by bushmeat, rather than ivory, demand”.

“If we want wildlife to thrive, we need to give it value,” said section ranger Richard Sowry.

He argued that communities bordering the park, many of them plagued by high levels of poverty, unemployment and a general lack of economic opportunities, needed to be shown the value of wildlife in order for them to value and protect it.

If they do not derive any benefit or see the value of helping to conserve the wildlife around them, they will use it for their own benefit, largely for food.

Parks also needed to build relationships and mutually beneficial partnerships with local communities, Sowry said.

If this doesn’t happen, problems such as the poisoning of animals will continue unabated, leading to the decimation of species such as vultures.

“They might recover if we stop the poisoning. But if we don’t and if this carries on, in the next five years you won’t be seeing vultures,” English warned. Mukurukuru Media/DM

This article first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick newspaper, DM168, which is available countrywide for R35.

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