The ongoing slaughter of Africa’s elephants is at record levels. The situation has gotten out of hand in many countries, especially those lacking the resources to fight the increase in demand for ivory from the Far East. Poachers lace the discarded elephant carcass with cheap poisons to kill vultures in mass. Why? Because vultures circling in the sky alert wildlife authorities to the location of poachers’ activities.
With wildlife authorities struggling to save the remaining tuskers, there has been little attention paid to the other casualties of elephant poaching. In what is now becoming commonplace across the continent, poachers lace the discarded elephant carcass with cheap poisons to kill vultures in mass. Why? Because vultures circling in the sky alert wildlife authorities to the location of poachers’ activities. Vultures are highly specialized to locate carcasses quickly so as to avoid competition from larger mammalian predators. Poachers would prefer their nefarious activities to remain undetected to escape arrest. So to a poacher capable of gunning down a 7-ton beast, poisoning several hundred vultures along the way is all in a days’ work.
And if recent reports are anything to go by, many of Africa’s 11 species of vulture are in imminent danger of extinction. In July this year up to 600 vultures died at a single elephant carcass that was poisoned near Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park. There have been three other similar incidents in the wider region since the end of 2012, with each incident killing hundreds of vultures.
Vultures are long-lived birds that reproduce very slowly, producing an average of one chick every other year. Their current mortality rates are well above what is sustainable and populations of all species are crashing across the continent.
And if you don’t love vultures, you should. They are nature’s most efficient and effective clean-up crew. They go about their daily business without any fanfare. Yet, in their little appreciated role, they are ensuring that our increasingly polluted planet remains a bit less polluted from the bacteria and other pathogens that accumulate on carcasses and at garbage dumps. If you have ever seen the immaculately cleaned bones remaining from a carcass scavenged by vultures, you’ll know of the magic of these supremely adapted scavengers.
This article was written by Darcy Ogada for National Geographic.