Because of quick and collaborative response teams like his and Nasoita’s, some of the damage can be mitigated, but the conservation groups working to protect vultures remain deeply concerned about how to deter poisoning in the first place.
Vulture poisoning in Africa can be separated into two categories. In southern Africa mainly, poachers will lace dead elephants and rhinos with poison to intentionally kill vultures that might tip off park rangers to their illicit activities. In a particularly gruesome case in June, more than 530 endangered vultures died after feeding on a poisoned elephant in Botswana.
In eastern Africa, vultures are more often collateral damage in battles between humans and predators. Herders who lose livestock to lions, hyenas, and other carnivores will sometimes sprinkle toxic pesticides over the felled animals’ carcasses in retaliation. The poison kills the predator, but it also kills the vultures who swoop in to eat the poisoned animals.
As Kenya’s human population has grown, the Masai Mara has become a particular hotspot for revenge poisonings, Thomsett says. Cottar’s Wildlife Conservation Trust, which manages the Olderkesi Community Wildlife Conservancy in the Masai Mara, estimates they occur every other month.
With dramatically hooked beaks and sparsely feathered heads and necks, vultures are hardly in contention for winning any avian beauty contests. Their diet, which consists of devouring recently deceased animals, doesn’t earn them much affection either. This makes vultures a more difficult bunch to protect than photogenic species like elephants and lions, says Ralph Buij, the Peregrine Fund’s Africa Program Director.
But as the only terrestrial vertebrates that can support themselves through scavenging, vultures are critical to the health of the African ecosystem. Often arriving within half an hour of an animal’s death, vultures efficiently dispense with carrion, gobbling down more than two pounds of meat in a minute. Their stomachs are highly acidic, allowing them to safely digest sick animals as well as healthy ones, reducing the chance that diseases like anthrax, tuberculosis, and rabies will spread to other wildlife or humans. (Read more about why saving vultures is so important.)