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Poachers threaten vulture population

environment:By PATRICE MAKOVA

POACHERS are posing a serious threat to Zimbabwe’s vulture population particularly in the Hwange and Victoria Falls where they are poisoning the endangered birds while others are killing them to make traditional medicines.

The Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, a member of the Africa Albida Tourism (AAT) group has since established a conservation project that strives to protect the endangered birds and allow their numbers to be monitored while raising awareness on their plight.

Vultures are considered an integral part of the ecosystem as they are the rubbish collectors and cleaners of the bush – without them, there would be more diseases like anthrax in the immediate environment, thereby adversely affecting wildlife, domestic animals and humans.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has already listed all the species of vultures found in Zimbabwe as either endangered or critically endangered.

A wildlife supervisor at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, Moses Marunya Garira said under the initiative, a “Vulture Restaurant” was established to provide a safe and supplementary feeding site where animals’ carcasses are provided as an artificial, safe food source for vultures every day.

The “Restaurant” is now a popular site with tourists, who come every lunch hour to witness hundreds of the endangered birds swooping down to feed on leftover meat scraps from the lodge’s onsite restaurants in what is known as the “Vulture Culture Experience”.

But Garira said poachers were now a grave threat to the vultures as they were poisoning the birds, which alert rangers of the location of a poached animal.

“Vultures are poachers’ biggest enemies. Whenever they spot a hunted animal they always alert game rangers because they start circling around. Some land on the nearby big trees, waiting for their turn to do what they know best, which is feeding on the carcasses. “If there are game rangers nearby, they will go to check what will be happening,” he told Standard Style soon after feeding the birds recently.

“So after extracting the tusks from an elephant, some of these poachers poison the whole elephant carcass hoping that vultures will come in their big numbers and feed and die so that on their next illegal hunt there are less vultures to spy on them.”

He said some of the poachers realised that using firearms also alerts game rangers and resorted to using cyanide and other poison at drinking points which ends up not only killing elephants, but other animals like hyenas, lions, crocodiles and tortoises.

Garira said they used to feed over 300 vultures at the “Vulture Restaurant” every day, but the population has severely gone down after poachers in nearby Botswana recently killed eight elephants before poisoning their carcasses resulting in 537 vultures dying in just three weeks.

“So the population of vultures has dramatically dropped as these are the same vultures, which go to Botswana and back. We used to feed up to 300 plus vultures but now only around 100 vultures are coming. It will take up to 10 years to get the same flock here,” he said.

Garira said vultures were gregarious animals and always feed in large flocks.

“Imagine if I had put poisoned meat here, it means that all this flock can be killed by one carcass,” he said.

“But remember vultures do not multiply that fast. A single vulture lays a single egg every year, which takes 54 to 56 days to hatch. Once it’s hatched a vulture does not leave a mother’s hatch until it is a sub adult, which takes another four to five months.”

He said the “Vulture Restaurant” not only serves to assist in the continued survival of vultures but also increases awareness on the need to protect the scavengers.
Garira said there were some traditional healers, who believed different body parts of a vulture can cure diseases and provide foresight through dreams.

“Some believe vultures carry parts, which can be used for traditional medicines to cure diseases. Those into gambling they believe vultures do dream,” he said.

“So they kill the vulture, take the head and remove the brain and take it to a witch doctor to mix with another charm to dream correct combination of lotto numbers in the hope that the next morning they will wake up millionaires.”

Garira said some farmers were also indirectly poisoning vultures by using poison bait for predators that prey on their herds of livestock while some veterinary drugs to treat domestic animals like diclofenac kill vultures. If the animal dies it is consumed by the scavenger birds.

He said it was, therefore, important for farmers to burn the carcasses of their dead livestock to avoid them being eaten by vultures.

AAT quoted leading conservationist Kerri Wolter as saying vultures reduce potential epidemics.

“They get rid of carcasses. Without vultures, carcasses would stay there rotting. If an animal dies of an infectious disease and a vulture eats the carcass, it prevents the spread of disease by consuming the remains so quickly and efficiently,” she said.

Wolter said providing vultures with a safe source of food through a vulture restaurant, such as the one operated at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, was important to their survival.

Vultures are also dwindling due to electrocution by power lines as well as loss of food supplies as humans encroach on wildlife areas. Other people also consider vultures as pests, which need extermination.

AAT works in collaboration with VulPro, a leading vulture conservation programmed based in South Africa, as well at the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust
Currently, the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust together with Victoria Falls Safari Lodge are conducting vulture population surveys through nesting sites and vulture counts

The research will also track spatial movements by fitting satellite tracking devices and tags to monitor their movement and habitat regionally.

The main species of vultures in the Victoria Falls area are the white-backed, hooded and lappet-faced vultures, and less common are the white-headed and Cape vultures, and occasionally an Egyptian vulture.

The Victoria Falls Safari Lodge estate also assists by adding US$1 to selected meals at its in house restaurants, with the funds donated to vulture conservation initiatives.

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