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Last flight of an industrious scavenger

Black death: Vultures lie dead in a previous poisoning incident
A triple-threat is decimating the population of vultures in Botswana, pushing the speciesí already dicey numbers closer to the brink of disappearance. While playing the Devilís Advocate, Staff Writer MBONGENI MGUNI, discovers the beauty of a much-maligned and misunderstood bird

Not many people lie awake at night and think about the plight of Botswana’s vultures. In fact, for many people, vultures are an odious creature that literally feeds off the dead. It is an unwelcome and ungainly sight linked forever with the stench of decomposition.

There are some who would not bat an eyelid should it be announced this very day that only a handful of vultures remain in Botswana. After all, of what use are they, besides inadvertently pointing out that something has died?

Kabelo Senyatso is one man who does lie awake at night thinking about the plight of the country’s vultures. And he has the answer to the question, “So what?”

“We believe there are two main reasons why people should care about the decimation of vultures,” the BirdLife Botswana director says in an interview at his offices located in the woods near Gaborone Dam.

The first is that vultures act as nature’s clean up crew in the event of some of agriculture’s most harmful outbreaks, such as anthrax and rabies.

“Rabies can be found in animals other than dogs, such as hyenas and the more vultures you lose, the more such carnivorous scavengers increase in numbers, thus boosting the risk to farmers of contagion to animals such as cattle. “Anthrax is a highly contagious virus that transmits very easily from one animal to another at death. The safest way to dispose of it is to burn the animal, bury it and clean the area where it was. Just think how large some of national parks are and you will see that this would only happen where wildlife officers find each carcass, otherwise an outbreak occurs.

“Vultures, however, do not contract anthrax. They gladly come and eat without any problem, thus removing anthrax from the environment.”

An anthrax outbreak in 2004 killed about 250 buffaloes and closed large sections of Chobe National Park, resulting in loss of revenues.

Vultures also represent a money-spinning opportunity via tourism as a sub-sector

of a global bird tourism industry valued at US$80 billion annually.

While BirdLife Botswana is yet to quantify the potential value of the vultures as a tourism venture, South Africa and Namibia are already running successful industries based on these birds.

“What that means is that there are many localities where vultures are the main attraction, such as Otse.  In South Africa, there are vulture attractions where people come with meat to throw at them.

“We have similar thoughts,” Senyatso says.

The grandiose plans, however, may have to wait as the association’s most immediate task is to plug the death rate among vultures. At least 2,000 vultures were killed last year – mostly from poisoning – and more incidents of mass deaths come in nearly every month.

In Otse, one of two known breeding colonies in Botswana, vulture numbers have collapsed from 600 in the 1990s to about 150 as at May.  In July 2013, 600 vultures died in a single incident at Chobe National Park, while 280 died in yet another at Lesome.

Just under 300 birds died in a single poisoning incident in the Okavango Delta in May while in the latest report, 10 birds were found dead at Tswagare in Borolong in the second week of September.

Vultures in Botswana face a triple-threat of poisoning with the major aggressor being poachers who lace their illegal quarry with harmful chemicals to prevent vultures from circling overhead.

“They apply chemicals on their prey to stop the vultures from showing that there is a dead animal and thus attracting the attention of security personnel,” Senyatso explains. “This particular motivation has caused more deaths than any other.”

Besides poachers, farmers poison carcasses to prevent the influx of hyenas. However, vultures almost always arrive first, with deadly results. The last factor in the triple-threat against vultures is lead poisoning, which occurs when vultures consume bullet-riddled carcasses, or when they eat animals that have suffered lead poisoning such as those that roam busy highways.




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