The Poisoning of Africa’s Vultures

Darcy Ogadaaug, New York Times, August 28, 2014

In July of last year, roughly 500 vultures died after they ate the pesticide-laced carcass of an elephant that had been killed by poachers in Namibia. It was an example of one poaching technique in Africa that seems to be on the rise: the poisoning of vultures so that authorities won’t be alerted to the location of the crime.

The overhead circling of vultures has long been used to locate lost or dead livestock. In the same way, vultures help law enforcement officers zero in on poachers.

With their keen eyesight and distinctive vantage point, vultures can locate an elephant carcass within 30 minutes of the animal’s death. It can take 45 to 70 minutes for the most skilled poachers to hack off two elephant tusks, and when vultures gather overhead rangers can get that much closer to apprehending the perpetrators. By poisoning a carcass and killing vultures en masse, poachers are trying to ensure that next time around there will be fewer of them to contend with.

Vulture conservationists began to take particular note of this development in July 2012, when an elephant was poached in Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe and 191 vultures were found scattered around the carcass, poisoned. Since then, six more cases of these poisonings have been reported. The most recent was in May. All told, some 1,700 vultures died.

If vultures were merely the ancillary damage of poaching, it would be bad enough. But these birds are also dying from eating the poisoned carcasses of livestock that have been baited to kill predators, like lions, leopards and hyenas, in retaliation for killing livestock. Vultures, too, are being poisoned for their body parts, which are used in traditional medicine and for good luck.

What’s worrisome is that of the nine main species of vultures in Africa, four are endangered and three more are listed as vulnerable by the authoritative Red List of Threatened Species maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.


Elephants and rhinos are also being killed by the same poisons that poachers use to kill vultures. These pesticides are poured into water holes and onto salt licks, sprinkled over pachyderm delicacies such as watermelons or pumpkins, or used to coat the tips of arrows. The carcasses of these huge animals can then poison the next round of consumers, the scavengers.

The pesticides most commonly used include carbofuran and aldicarb. In the United States, Canada and the European Union, those pesticides are either banned, or their use is severely restricted. But throughout rural Africa you can walk into many of the numerous small shops selling agricultural products and walk out with enough poison to kill an elephant in perhaps 30 minutes, or a human being more quickly.

While Africa’s vultures have become increasingly entangled in the ivory and rhino horn trade, the commercialization of the trade in vulture parts–in particular their heads, which are valued as fetishes–is worsening the problem. Vultures are associated with clairvoyance. Businessmen sometimes sprinkle a powder of vulture parts around their businesses to improve profits. These powders can also be blown into the air to recall a lost lover.


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  • IstvanIN

    Can we send Africa our Negros and take in their elephants? We could probably set up a very nice habitat for the elephants and they would actually be grateful.

    • Steven Bannister

      That’s the best damn idea I’ve heard all day.

    • Oil Can Harry

      As if Africa would exchange valuable elephants for useless welfare bums.

    • One plan I have read about is to use mammoth DNA and elephant ova to recreate wooly mammoths and establish them in the Canadian and Alaskan arctic.

  • Tim_in_Indiana

    Who are the REAL vultures in Africa? Hint: They lack feathers, walk on two legs and have a dusky hue.

    • DNA Explains It All

      We are to blame for the damage black Africans do. Before we took them tech above that of their own developing (primal, learned from other great apes I think) they were not much danger to whole species or the planet in general.

    • DNA Explains It All

      They lived quite effectively with mother nature being their only government. When they over bread… Mother nature corrected.

  • glennm

    everything you read about the black things is horrible

  • Valmont

    A vulture-head fetish is extremely kinky. I hope it does not catch on across the fruited plain.

  • none of your business

    ” poisoned carcasses of livestock that have been baited to kill predators, like lions, leopards and hyenas, in retaliation for killing livestock. ”

    Excellent!!! Admirable!!! Maybe africans aren’t so dumb after all.

  • LHathaway

    New York Times? This has to be vying for one of the more insane stories every to see print.

  • Cid Campeador

    The only thing worth seeing in Africa is the wildlife.

  • OS-Q

    In a part of India, the local vultures were poisoned (I don’t remember if it was intentional or not). With no vultures to eat carcasses in the wilderness and cities, the feral dog population exploded and so did incidents of rabies.

  • Shortly we will be treated to news articles about how Africans are dying of a hideous new disease transmitted by eating vultures. Someone who would eat a bat would certainly not turn down a raw vulture.

    • Who Me?

      Well, Americans eat turkeys (not raw, though). Aren’t turkeys related to vultures?

      • sulbernick

        Well yes, but turkeys don’t live on a diest of rotten meat. You are what you eat…

        • The Worlds Scapegoat

          Vultures are the cockroaches of the air.


  • sulbernick

    Of course it is only the West that frets about the fate of Africa’s wildlife. If it depended on the natives there wouldn’t be an elephant or rhino left. On the other side of the argument though had the West not armed Africans and instead kept them at arm’s length, the wildlife would be as it walways was.

    • Most of this poaching is done to satisfy demand from outside Africa, such as southeast Asia. Ironically, the restrictions imposed by the CITES wildlife treaty have actually driven up prices for things like rhino horn and elephant ivory, which results in more poaching.