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Dead vultures

Thursday 2nd June 2011

Dead vultures

In Botswana and other African countries it is always a bad sign when you come upon a carcass of an animal with many dead vultures lying around. Yet this seems to be happening more and more, and is a clear indication of the use of poison by farmers and perhaps by poachers.

The poisons are concocted from undiluted agricultural insecticides, and are highly lethal. So lethal, in fact, that they have been (and maybe still are) components of biological warfare (cholinesterase inhibitors, neurotoxins) – a tiny amount (1/4 teaspoon) can kill a human, and an even smaller amount (a grain) will kill a vulture. Prime among the suspected chemicals used is Carbofuran (Furadan) that Kenyan conservationists are attempting to have banned (but there are also Parathion and Aldicarb, products of equal toxicity). Carbofuran is made by the FMC Corporation in Philadelphia, USA, and is a wide-acting insecticide used on soybeans, potatoes, corn, sunflowers, etc. The product is banned in the EU and Canada, and the product is banned in the USA as well (where it was used to poison coyotes, eagles, vultures, raccoons, and even domestic dogs). Nevertheless, it is still available in Botswana.


Botswana does have laws about this, however:

Section 15 of Agrochemicals Act states that for one to be given a licence to dispense chemicals, he/she should undergo training before being issued with a licence.

 “The wrong use or application of pesticides for the purpose not intended by the manufacturer is a crime that would lead to a fine of P10 000.00 ($1,530) or jail term of 10 years or both charges at the same time.”

The Botswana Wildlife Act does not allow the use of poison to control problem animals, and also has Section 17 that states

 “No person shall except only under and in accordance with the terms and conditions of a permit issued by the Director under section 39 or section 40, hunt or capture any protected game animal, and any person who contravenes the provisions of this section shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine of P10 000.00 and to imprisonment of 7 years.”

Vultures are protected animals in Botswana – so if caught, someone poisoning carcasses could end up with a double fine and a jail term of 17 years. The problem of course, is in catching the culprits – nobody has been apprehended in two separate recent incidents that killed 54 White-backed vultures, some hooded vultures, and two Yellow-billed kites (and probably many more that died some distance away). Carbofuran remains active in the carcasses of animals that have ingested the chemical – a vulture that eats from a poisoned vulture will also be poisoned – as will many other small scavengers like jackals and mongooses. Newspaper reports from Botswana indicate that employees at agricultural operations steal Carbofuran and then sell it on to those with problem animal issues.


But really, the vultures can be classified as collateral damage for the real purpose of putting out poisoned carcasses. And that is to kill hyenas and lions. FMC had no comment when contacted by the USA investigative television journal “60 Minutes” in response to a programme on the widespread Carbofuran poisoning of lions in Kenya. To be reasonable, there are many dangerous products in any household that can cause death if used inappropriately – rat poison, petrol, bleach, chloroquine (a malaria prophylactic) – and manufacturers do issue instructions for appropriate use. That said, Africa has long been a fertile market for chemical companies to sell their banned products in the EU, the USA, and Canada. The manufacturing company now says it will include "bitter flavours" in their chemicals - a bunch of nonsense as by the time the animal tastes the chemical it is rather too late? 

Even if Carbofuran is withdrawn from the market, substitutes will be found. The point is that farmers in Botswana are faced with a very difficult situation – the Government issues laws, but does not help when problem animal issues occur, although there is a Government compensation scheme (partial value to encourage owners to take better care of their livestock) in place for livestock losses involving lions (not hyenas). It is illegal to shoot lions and hyenas but poison allows one to remain rather anonymous. The Government has allowed land distribution that includes direct borders between livestock and wildlife areas. This has created the problem animal issue, and the ineffectiveness of the Government in attending to problem animals has created the retaliation by the farmers.

Botswana has also been rather lax to prosecute those who poison wildlife. Over a period of three years, the Okavango Lion Research Project lost 60 lions to poison largely due to one small village. Samples were collected from carcasses (including wild animals that died ensnared in veterinary cordon fences and obviously sprinkled with chemicals) and sent to the Wildlife Department and the national veterinary laboratory, but apparently no diagnosis could be made. Certainly it could have been, as crops treated with Carbofuran need to undergo residue tests to ensure they are safe for human consumption. A lack of prosecution and a lack of will to analyse samples thoroughly will only encourage further use of these deadly poisons.

References –

Picture credit – Ngami Times

Posted by Pieter Kat at 15:54

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