Ben Hoffman, of the Raptor Rescue project, gathers up the carcasses of at least 37 endangered white-backed vultures killed in a single incident in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park after feeding on an elephant carcass laced with poison. Picture: Andre Botha, Endangered Wildlife Trust
Ben Hoffman, of the Raptor Rescue project, gathers up the carcasses of at least 37 endangered white-backed vultures killed in a single incident in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park after feeding on an elephant carcass laced with poison. Picture: Andre Botha, Endangered Wildlife Trust

Forty vultures killed in mass poisoning

By Tony Carnie Time of article published Nov 27, 2013

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Durban - Nearly 40 more vultures have been killed in the latest mass poisoning case in the flagship Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve, heightening concern among vulture experts that these birds are being wiped out a rate that is pushing them closer to extinction.

Most of the birds’ heads had been chopped off, increasing suspicion that they were poisoned by muti sellers who market vulture brains as a way to boost their customers’ chances of winning the Lotto and other betting games.

“This latest case is a real cause for concern because we believe that at least 2 000 vultures have been poisoned in southern Africa over the past 18 months,” said Andre Botha, co-chairman of the Vulture Specialist Group of the International Union for Nature Conservation.

Botha, who also heads the Endangered Wildlife Trust birds of prey project, said that in one of the worst cases on record, between 400 and 600 vultures were killed in a single poisoning event in the Caprivi Strip in Namibia earlier this year.

The number of white-backed vultures in the Mkhuze Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal has also been slashed by almost two thirds over the past few years because of similar poisonings.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife confirmed on Tuesday that in the latest case, the carcasses of 37 white-backed vultures had been found in the Masinda section of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park late last week.

The heads of 29 of these endangered birds had also been cut off. The bodies were scattered on the ground, all within 120m of an elephant carcass thought to have been laced with a deadly poison, close to the tarred Corridor Road, which cuts through the park.

Recent research by resource economist Myles Mander suggests that vultures are used in traditional medicine for a range of purposes, especially for “providing clairvoyant powers, foresight and increased intelligence”.

“The main drivers of demand are for betting and gambling, for improving business success, and intelligence in school children.”

Mander calculated that vulture body parts could make up five percent to 10 percent of the income of certain traditional healers.

Based on demand levels in 2007, he estimated that white-backed vultures in Zululand would be extinct by 2033, or by 2017 from more intensive use of their body parts.

Other species, such as the white-headed and lappet-faced vultures, were likely to disappear by 2020 in Zululand.

Cape vultures in KwaZulu-Natal and other provinces also face a bleak future unless the rate of harvesting for muti is reduced.

Ezemvelo said it had taken carcass samples for laboratory analysis to trace the poison type and opened a criminal case with the police.

The remains of the elephant and vultures had now been burnt to prevent other scavengers being poisoned.

Botha said it was possible that several other vultures had died, either from succumbing to poison further away or vulture nestlings being stranded without parents.

Earlier this year, at least 56 Cape vultures were poisoned on a farm owned by the Porritt family in the Swartberg area in southern KwaZulu-Natal.

In Zimbabwe, several hundred vultures are thought to have died from feeding on the carcasses of scores of poisoned elephants in the Hwange National Park.

At least 320 vultures had also been poisoned in Botswana, along with more than 140 in Mozambique.

“In several respects, vultures are now even more vulnerable than rhinos because they are an incredibly mobile species,” said Botha. “A vulture can take off from KwaZulu-Natal early this morning and reach the Kruger National Park by the afternoon.

“So if you consider that at least 400 vultures were killed in a single poisoning case in Namibia earlier this year, you only need two such cases to equal the roughly 800 rhino killings so far this year.”

“There is growing concern that KwaZulu-Natal seems to be the greatest area of threat for vultures at the moment.” - The Mercury

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