Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Death becomes the vulture’s destiny

It is almost 3 o’clock, the wee hours of the morning. The two guard dogs are barking furiously, the shrill yelping growing increasingly hysterical as footsteps approach their owner’s yard. A muted bang suddenly echoes in the eerie pre-dawn. The barking abruptly stops.

Hours later, just next to the main entrance, someone discovers the still-warm bodies of the two dead dogs. Someone else stumbles upon the owner of the house. Both of his hands are secured tightly behind his back, his chapped lips gagged with masking tape. His car has gone missing, his money safe blown wide open.

Deep in the belly of Botswana’s wild lands, this kind of scenario is becoming frighteningly familiar, say Botswana’s caretakers of birds. Except it features more the carcasses of wild animals than those of domestic ones.┬á Recently, two elephants were discovered dead at Kwando in the Okavango Delta, their tusks shorn off. A short distance from where the elephants had been shot, more than 200 vultures lay dying.┬á Evidence shows that the vultures had just voraciously feasted on the elephants’ poisoned carcasses. The poison drove deep into their veins. The result was a landscape littered with dead birds.

“Poachers killed the elephants and cut off their tusks. Knowing full well that vultures would immediately come to the party, they poisoned the carcasses so that the vultures would die,” says Dr. Kabelo Senyatso, the Director of Birdlife Botswana, an NGO that leads in caring for the bird population of Botswana. “This means nothing would in future warn patrolling personnel that there were carcasses in the area.”

Killing off vultures is a tried and tested method poachers use to prevent wildlife authorities from tracking and arresting them. The logic is simple enough: without the sight of hovering vultures to warn them of an animal killing, it is difficult for game rangers to pinpoint the possible location of poachers.

Yet it is not just poachers who are responsible for the termination of the vulture, the ultimate scavengers. There are instances, Senyatso says, when farmers poison the carcasses of their livestock after the animals have been killed by predators. The idea is for more predators to eat the poisoned carcasses and die.

Unfortunately, the poison ends up killing scavenging birds like vultures. What people are not aware of is the fact that these scavengers have an important role to play for the biodiversity of the ecosystem, says Senyatso. This has created a challenge that should be tackled head on, especially in educating members of the society about the importance of scavengers. 

Recently Birdlife, Small Grants Program/Global Environment Facility (SGP/GEF), Kgatleng Performing Arts Commune (KGAPACO) collaborated and organised a choir competition in the Kgatleng District. This followed a series of workshops in the area, during which the stakeholders agreed to further preach the ‘birds and biodiversity conservation awareness’ message through Dikhwaere ÔÇô a favourite entertainment in the district.

Mbiganyi Frederick Dipotso, an official from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, echoed the warning that poisoning of animal carcasses is a worrying trend that is growing. “The escalating practice of poisoning carcasses while trying to kill predators has far much more damaging effect on many other species than just the predators that may have been targeted,” Dipotso said.

Although both Birdlife Botswana and wildlife authorities are not sure how many species of vultures are being extermination, one thing they are sure of is the plight of the white-backed vultures. This species is now threatened with extinction, asserts the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The Conservation Union assesses endangered species ÔÇô whether birds, plants or animals.

Records from IUCN books indicate that in 2004, these birds were in the same stage as the common little birds (bo tswere, matshega noga, etc) available in Botswana. The stage is called ‘the least concerned’. This means their population did not call for any close monitoring. Eight years down the line the white-backed vulture has shifted to the IUCN’s RED list. This means they are in the 50 percent endangered stage. By 2020 the white backed vultures could be extinct. The major cause of this, says Senyatso, is poisoning for whatever reason. He recalled that the past year more than 100 vultures died of poisoning.

So these long arch-necked scavengers face a charmed existence. Besides being ‘cleaners’ in the ecosystem ÔÇô they remove smell pollution by eating carcasses. Further, they attract tourists.

According to international statistics, birding tourism attracts as much as US$80 billion in revenues across the globe. Extinction of birds like these vultures therefore carries potential loss of tourism finances.

“Communities should take responsibility to ensure poachers do not impoverish them. There is no way a poacher can come and poach in your area without the aid of a member or members of that community. Farmers who poison carcases should know that they are at fault. Care of livestock is more important than waiting for the predators to come and then you poison them,” says Senyatso.

He suggests that income generated from Community Based Natural Resources Management (CBNRM) should be invested in enhancing security and patrolling capabilities of the conserved areas’ guides. As it is currently, the guides do not provide sufficient security. They just escort legal hunters to ensure they do not exceed their limited number of animals to hunt or just direct them where the animals are. They do not have the potential to tackle heavily armed poachers. Apparently, communities in areas where farming is deterred or completely impossible due to their vicinity to conserved areas, get some quota for wild animals. The funds raised are accessed by communities through CBNRM. These funds are used for development projects, including human resources.

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.