It is scary. To understand why, picture this: A vulture lays only one egg per year. Even then it is not guaranteed that it will do so every year.
One vulture may lay an egg for two consecutive years and then stop due to a whole lot of factors for the next four years. So, imagine what it means when 40 vultures die at a go like it happened at Lesoma last week. Research has shown that the vulture is an endangered species and may be extinct in the next half century unless governments make efforts to save it.
It is under threat from poachers and careless farmers.
The death through poisoning of the 40 white-backed vultures - a critically endangered species of the bird, is therefore cause for alarm. The incident may easily be the most serious wildlife poisoning ever recorded in Botswana - and it has left conservationists and bird lovers sick. The birds were found next to a cow carcass laced with poison.
"More depressing is the fact that the dead vultures are in the red - they are the most critically endangered, " says Pete Hancock, Birdlife Botswana's Conservation Officer in Maun. The incident happens at a time when bird conservationists around the world are meeting in Kasane to discuss the fate of endangered species, among them the vulture.
"The motive is not clear, although there are suspicions that a farmer might have laced the cow with poison to kill lions or hyenas. It is quite obvious that the poison used is very potent as the birds died on the spot," says Hancock.
Sadly the species that was killed has been completely wiped out in West Africa and very few of the birds remain in Botswana and Southern Africa, he says. It is not the first time that so many vultures have been poisoned in Botswana.
"In January this year, 15 white-backed vultures were found dead at Tito cattle-post after they were poisoned," says a biologist with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Ernest Madimabe. He says that in both the Lesoma and Tito cases, the carcasses that the birds ate had been laced with poison.
"We suspect that farmers, whose animals have been killed by wild animals which fall in the non-compensation group, such as hyenas simply decide to get rid of the hyenas by lacing remains of the animal the hyenas would have killed with poison.
Unfortunately in the two cases, it was not the hyenas that came to eat the poisoned meat, but the vultures," he says. Could compensating farmers for loss occasioned by these animals offer some respite to the bird?
Last October 50 globally threatened vultures were poisoned in the Xudum Concession in the fringes of the Okavango. In the incident white-backed and hooded vultures, together with yellow-billed
It is said that in the Lesoma incident, the vultures were targeted by poachers. "The birds had been feeding on the carcasses of the giraffes, killed illegally by poachers operating in the area, and laced with poison. It is clear that poachers are deliberately aiming to eliminate vultures in areas where they poach, since the birds tend to alert the concessionaires and wildlife rangers to their activities as they will gather where there is a carcass," says Hancock.
This poses the greatest risk to the vulture and other birds of prey. "Poisoning by poachers is much more serious than incidental poisoning as poachers purposely target the birds," Hancock says. The poison was identified as Carbofuran - a highly toxic agricultural insecticide meant for use on non-food crops. "We are very concerned by the escalating indiscriminate use of poisons for killing vultures, as this has decimated their numbers throughout Africa, and has become the single greatest threat facing all vulture and raptor species in Botswana," says Hancock.
Birdlife is embarking on an awareness programme to address the issue of birds of prey poisoning. It intends to lobby for legislation to restrict the availability and use of poisons such as Carbofuren. "We want the police to not only be looking for arms at roadblocks, but to be also looking for these dangerous toxins that are not only a danger to birds but are also a danger to humans and the environment in general," Hancock says.
Already two of the five species of the vulture found in Botswana are critically endangered. These are the white head and the leopard face vultures. "It is important that we all join hands to fight poaching, and indiscriminate poisoning of carcasses.
Anybody who hears about or sees anyone doing these things should report them to Birdlife or the Department of Wildlife and National Parks," urges Hancock.
It is illegal in Botswana to kill a vulture. The punishment for the offence is P10,000 or 10 years imprisonment. The urgency to protect the vulture comes not just from concern at the loss of another species, but the devastation its absence is likely to cause to the ecosystem.
"Vultures very effectively remove diseases that may be in carcass leftovers that are not palatable to predators as they tend to eat all the flesh and leave just bones," says wildlife biologist Madimabe. The health consequences of the vulture's demise could therefore be catastrophic. Already the number of carcasses is building up in areas where previously vultures would dispose of them within hours of death.