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Lion poisonings decimating vultures in Kenya

It’s a common image of the African savanna: vultures flocking to a carcass on the great plains. However, a new study has found that vulture populations are plummeting in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, a part of the Serengeti plains, due to habitat loss as well as the illegal killing of lions. Increasingly farmers and livestock owners have targeted lions and other big predators by poisoning livestock carcasses with toxic pesticides, such as Furadan. Not only illegal, such poisonings take their toll on other Serengeti wildlife, including vultures that perish after feeding on the laced carcasses.

“Staggering declines in abundance were found for seven of eight scavenging raptors surveyed,” said co-author Munir Virani, director of The Peregrine Fund’s Africa-based programs, in a press release. “Better land management and a ban on certain pesticides are needed to preserve these keystone members of the scavenging community.”

According to the study undertaken by the National Museums of Kenya and Princeton University in addition to the Peregrine Fund, vulture populations have fallen by up to 60 percent over 30 years. Given their findings, the study advised that three species be listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List: African white-backed, Ruppell’s, and hooded vultures.

Although often considered unattractive by humans, vultures play a key role in ecosystems by consuming carcasses before they decay. This role as carcass recyclers lessens the chance of diseases spreading from carcasses to humans, livestock, or other wild animals. In fact, villagers who poison carcasses to save their livestock may in fact be endangering their livestock’s, and their own, lives by depleting beneficial vulture populations with pesticides like Furadan.

Also known as Carbofuran, Furadan is manufactured by the Farm Machinery and Chemicals Corporation (FMC) in the United States. As of May 2009, the US banned Furadan from being used on any crop for human consumption due to its potentially lethal toxicity. Still, FMC says it will continue to manufacture the pesticide for use abroad. In 2009 a three year old Kenyan boy perished after consuming the pesticide, which his father had purchased for use in the family’s vegetable garden.

Ruppel’s vulture in Kenya. Researchers recommend that Ruppel’s vulture be reclassified as Vulnerable. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

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