Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, National Geographic
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At least 10 vultures ingested poison from feeding on the body of a hyena killed with pesticides. Working with park rangers, Valerie Nasoita of the Peregrine Fund spent six hours working to save the surviving, but weak, vultures.

Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, National Geographic

‘This is a full-blown crisis’: Fighting vulture poisoning in Kenya

A quick response averted a larger tragedy in Kenya. But Africa’s vulture population remains precarious.

When rangers patrolling the Ol Kinyei Conservancy in Kenya found a dead hyena and nearly a dozen vultures splayed out on the ground on November 13, they knew right away what happened—they’d been poisoned. A few of the birds still showed signs of life, though they were weak.

Simon Nkoitoi, manager of the conservancy, a private wildlife conservation area within the Masai Mara National Reserve, immediately called Valerie Nasoita, a vulture liaison officer at the Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting birds of prey.

“Please come save them,” he urged Nasoita.

Nasoita, who was raised in the Masai Mara, is part of a rapid-response network formed in 2016 by various conservation groups worried by the precarious state of Africa’s vulture population.

Of the continent’s eleven vulture species, seven are considered critically endangered or endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Over the past three decades, eight species of African vultures have declined by an average of 62 percent, according to a 2015 study by researchers from various universities and nonprofits, including the Peregrine Fund. The study found that more than 60 percent of reported vulture deaths were a result of poisoning. (Read more about how poison is a growing threat to Africa’s wildlife.)

“This is a full-blown crisis,” says Simon Thomsett of the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust, a raptor rescue and rehabilitation organization in the country’s Rift Valley.

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Nasoita tends to a poisoned vulture. She works to quickly respond to poisoning incidents and to educate her community about the importance of the oft-maligned birds.

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.

Vultures targeted

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.

Human consequences

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.)

How Pesticide Misuse Is Killing Africa's Wildlife This animated explainer shows how pesticides are destroying the continent’s ecosystem.

Conservationists point to India as a cautionary tale for what can happen when vultures disappear from the skies. In the 1990s, researchers noticed a startling drop in vulture populations. Eventually they linked the die-off to diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug that herders were using to treat pain in ailing cows, which are considered sacred in Hindu culture. Once the cows passed away, the vultures would feast on them, ingest diclofenac, and die.

In 2006, India, Pakistan, and Nepal banned the drug for veterinary purposes, but by then the populations of India’s most common vultures—white-rumped, long-billed, and slender-billed vultures—had already plummeted by more than 96 percent. The consequences for humans were severe: A 2008 study found that the decrease in vultures correlated with a spike in the number of feral dogs, which no longer had to compete with vultures for food. That surge led to an increase in dog bites, which in turn resulted in an estimated 48,000 human deaths from rabies.

Rescue efforts

Desperate to avoid a similar calamity, conservation groups working in Kenya are scrambling to respond to every poisoning event as quickly as possible.

As soon as she heard about the infected vultures in Ol Kinyei, Valerie Nasoita jumped on a motorbike and sped towards the scene. “I got there within seven minutes of hearing the news,” she says.

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A park ranger builds a fire to incinerate a dead lappet-faced vulture. The aim is to destroy its corpse and thus prevent more vultures from descending and eating poisoned flesh. While burning is the most common disposal approach, Thomsett of the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust says fire doesn’t always break down the toxins; he prefers burying poisoned animals.

Clad in a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of the critically endangered white-headed vulture and the words “Vulture Protector,” Nasoita and several park rangers moved the surviving vultures to the shade and administered atropine, an antidote to pesticide poisoning. Conservationists from other groups, including the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust and the Kenya Wildlife Service offered advice through the Vulture Protector WhatsApp group, which boasts 52 vulture experts from 22 different organizations. The following day, Jamie Manuel and Danni Cottar of Cottar’s Wildlife Conservation Trust retrieved the surviving vultures and brought them to Olderkesi for further treatment.

Ultimately, two endangered lappet-faced and four critically endangered Rüppell’s vultures died. But the team managed to save two Rüppell’s vultures, one lappet-faced vulture, and one critically endangered white-backed vulture.

On November 18, Manuel and Cottar released one revived female Rüppell's vulture back to the skies wearing a GPS tracker. “It was amazing to watch her fly away,” Manuel reflects.

But the key, they say, is to stop the poisonings in the first place.

To start, they’d like to see increased resolve from the state. In January, the government amended the 2013 Kenya Wildlife Act to make wildlife poisoning a standalone crime punishable by a fine of five million Kenyan shillings (about $50,000) and/or five years in prison.

Almost a year later, however, there has yet to be a single prosecution.