Moved by the plight of their continent’s endangered vultures and what this could mean for people, African Ministers gave their support to BirdLife’s vulture campaign last week in Nairobi at the UN Environment Assembly.
It’s hard to think of a context in which you would use the word ‘poison’ without shuddering.
The thought of a murderous act, a tainted and corrupt ideology, or a toxic concoction itself – or even a malicious blend of all three – surely leaves no human feeling good.
But today we celebrate a use of the word in a positive context, which brings good news for Africa’s vultures…
Unfortunately the use of poison fuels African wildlife crime, and it is high-time action is taken. Thanks to a new strategy which the African Union, BirdLife and other partners helped developed, African governments can now take action to prevent the poisoning of vultures. Ministers have also given high-level support to vultures and BirdLife’s campaign to save them.
Africa has raised the stakes in dealing with wildlife crime and illegal wildlife trade. A hugely symbolic ivory burning took place in Kenya earlier this year for example, and mounting pressure (predominately regarding elephant and rhinoceros trade) has led to a recent key commitment by African governments to step up the fight.
Last week they took one step further, by calling for international commitment too, including putting in place relevant policy legislation to tackle wildlife crime and trade at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, Kenya.
“It is abundantly clear that if we do nothing now, the health of our people in Africa could be at great risk,”
said H.E. Rhoda Peace Tumusiime, Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture at the African Union.
BirdLife has been working hard to highlight the plight of vultures and what this could mean for Africa – and awareness is rising considerably amongst governments – but international policy has yet to fully recognise that one poisoned elephant carcass can kill hundreds of Critically Endangered vultures too.
“We sometimes forget other species that play an equally important or greater role to maintaining our existence, but have as yet, not captured our imaginations and hearts,”
said Neville Ash, of UNEP.
BirdLife want governments to take action for vultures, for the benefit of natural ecosystems, human health and African economies.This is one of the reasons why a BirdLife team headed to UNEA.
“I really like vultures, they’re my favourite bird, but I haven’t seen them around for a while…”
said Hon. Amina Mohammed, Minister of Environment, Nigeria.
Vultures have been poisoned and persecuted.
Between 2012 and 2014, eleven known poaching-related incidents involving vulture poisoning were recorded in seven African countries in which 155 elephants and 2,044 vultures were killed. In one incident in Namibia in 2013, 500 vultures were found dead after feeding on the poisoned carcass of a poached elephant.
“We are losing large numbers of vultures due to poisoning, some of it related to poaching of elephants. Government support and multi-sectoral approach is of essence in dealing with this crisis,”
said Darcy Ogada, IUCN Vulture Specialist Group, speaking at UNEA.
Worryingly, there is evidence that the use of poisons to kill elephants and rhinoceros in sub-Saharan Africa is increasing. An increasing threat for large mammals, but also catastrophic for Africa’s endangered vultures.
It’s not surprising either, given that agro-chemicals easily available from shops and markets all over Africa are being used for unintended purposes of killing wildlife. One is nicknamed “two-step” because a creature takes two steps before dying.
Vulture killings are intentional too:
“Vultures are the sentinels of the savannah”,
says Kariuki Ndang’ang’a, Team Leader for Species, Science and Information Management for BirdLife International.
“By honing in on a carcass far, far away with incredible eyesight, vultures alert Park Rangers to a fresh poaching incident. “Unfortunately this is a major factor in the demise of vultures too.”
It turns out that imprudent poachers deliberately lace poached carcasses with poison to stop vultures giving the game away.
In the last 30 years, 7 of Africa’s 11 vulture species have declined by well over 80% and are now facing extinction. Poisoning accounts for 61% of the threats, with persecution for their body parts to be used in traditional medicine accounting for 29% – however in many cases this also involves the use of poison too (and also poses a human health risk).
Frightening figures, and a moral and social imperative to save them. This is why BirdLife called on African governments at a special event at UNEA to act – but not only for vultures themselves, but for the benefit of human health and the African economy.
Vultures are nature’s clean-up crew. In their unique niche in the ecosystem, they clear away germ-laden carcasses thus preventing the spread of Anthrax, Tuberculosis, Botulism, Rabies and other related diseases. A single vulture is estimated to be worth over US $ 11,000 just for its cleaning services. But by halting the spread of disease, they are worth much, much more to governments in saved health service costs, not to mention tourism.
Speaking at BirdLife’s Healthy Vultures, Healthy People event, Bradnee Chambers, Executive Secretary of the Convention on the conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) said:
“The African vulture crisis needs to be tackled urgently at the highest political levels.”
UNEA represents the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment, which culminates in resolutions and a global call to action to address the critical environmental challenges facing the world today.
“We are excited to announce some good news for vultures,”
says Ken Mwathe, Policy & Advocacy Coordinator, BirdLife International.
“Governments have now agreed to implement an Action Plan for the African Strategy on Combating Illegal Exploitation and Illegal Trade in Wild Fauna and Flora in Africa. This means African governments can now take action to prevent the poisoning of vultures, by applying available poisoning guidelines.”
After all, strategies mean nothing unless they are implemented.
The Minister of Environment for Nigeria, committed without hesitation at BirdLife’s event:
“The plight facing vultures in Nigeria has been effectively highlighted. My government will work with the Nigerian Conservation Foundation (BirdLife in Nigeria) on a strategy and take decisive action.”
Furthermore, the words of H.E Rhoda Peace Tumusiime at the event capture African governments’ renewed desire to honour regional and global commitments on illegal wildlife trade. She said:
“The African Union Commission will remain committed to supporting member states and other stakeholders in addressing illegal wildlife trade including addressing the plight of our vultures.”
This article was first published by Birdlife International on 03 Jun 2016.