June 28, 2019

An Unprecedented Disaster

Poachers in Botswana Deal a Tremendous Blow to Endangered Vulture Species

By Dr. Graeme Patterson, Vice President for Field Conservation


Last week, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in Botswana announced the deliberate mass poisoning of vultures by ivory poachers in the northern part of the country close to Chobe National Park. An unprecedented number of endangered and critically endangered vultures—537 to be exact—were killed after feeding on elephant carcasses laced with poison. This incident is a massive blow to the vulture populations in Botswana and of particular concern to Denver Zoo. We have worked on the ground with our partner in Botswana, Kalahari Research Conservation (KRC), for many years to reduce vulture poisoning by driving behavioral change through education and outreach, as well as on-the-ground clean up at poison sites.

All African vulture species are in severe decline, and all the vultures killed in this event are listed as either endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This included 468 critically endangered white-backed vultures, 28 critically endangered white-headed vultures, 17 critically endangered hooded vultures, 14 endangered lappet-faced vultures, 10 endangered Cape vultures and two vulnerable tawny eagles. Vultures play an important role in African savannah ecosystems—they function as the scavenging guild with each species providing unique adaptions to find and dispose of carcasses. There is already evidence that the decline of vultures has resulted in ecological change that will lead to health issues among people and their livestock.

The precipitous decline in vulture populations in recent years is caused by numerous threats, but none are as severe or common as poisoning. In many instances, vultures are the unintended victims of carcasses that have been laced with poison intended to kill carnivores that threaten livestock. But in this case, poisons were deliberately placed on elephant carcasses by ivory poachers to cover their tracks, since game wardens are often alerted to poaching incidents by the presence of vultures above the kills. The scale of this tragedy is likely even greater since it is the time of year when many of these birds would have had eggs or chicks in the nest. Without parents to rear them, these chicks will also be lost.

“Vultures are keystone species in their environment and this event represents a tragic loss for their populations and African ecosystems as a whole. The loss of these animals underscores the complexity of saving wildlife,” said Association of Zoos & Aquariums President and CEO Dan Ashe. “Despite this setback, Denver Zoo, AZA, and partners will continue pushing forward through SAFE’s research, public awareness, local stakeholder engagement, and fundraising initiatives for African vultures.”

Since 2006, Denver Zoo has worked tirelessly to reduce these kinds of incidents by initiating programs focused on instilling greater respect for vultures. We have developed a “Carrion for Vultures” campaign to highlight the value vultures provide to the ecosystem; supported KRC in training rapid response teams to clean up poison sites and limit the number of affected birds; and built capacity in local communities by supporting students pursuing careers in conservation. We also helped create the  AZA African Vulture SAFE (Saving Animals from Extinction) Program, which focuses the collective expertise within accredited zoos and aquariums to save the species.

However, our reach and resources are limited, and the challenges of protecting vultures are compounded by their tremendous mobility. For example, we placed trackers on lappet-faced vultures in Botswana and observed them across five other countries in southern Africa. Our goal is to bring to light the importance and plight of African vultures and bring greater resources to bear towards their conservation. As devastating as this news is to everyone in the conservation community, it also serves as motivation to double down on our resolve to help protect them.

Learn more about Denver Zoo’s conservation efforts in Botswana and how you can help.


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