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Human-wildlife conflict leads to major poisoning of Critically Endangered vultures in Amboseli

On 12 November at 09:46am we received this devastating message from Eric Ole Reson: “A poisoning incident at Olgilului”… “very many vultures dead… they are talking about 100 birds dead.”…”@Simon Thomsett can you get a plane there urgently”.


Within 30 mins of this message the Kenya Bird of Prey Trust had secured an aircraft and was onroute to the scene. Other concerned agencies were soon on site, an indication of the magnitude of what poisoning represents to each organisation. The exemplary cooperation between respondents resulted in five raptor lives being saved.

Poisoned vultures. Those in the foreground died in situ and were unmoved. This photo was taken standing next to the poisoned sheep carcass. It shows sudden death meters from the carcass and thick woodland making searches from the air and on foot difficult but not impossible.


The underlying cause

The Amboseli region is an area of high Human Wildlife Conflict (HWC). A day previously 4 Black-backed jackals were found poisoned, and a month previously 6 lions were found poisoned. This time the target species of the poisoning was Spotted Hyena who had recently killed a number of livestock. IFAW scouts in the area reported that on 9th, 10th and 11th of November hyenas had killed 20, 60, and 72 shoats respectively from three different livestock owners. The night before 13 shoats were reported killed at the poison site. Some of these shoats (number undetermined) had been laced with poison to kill the hyena.

Three sheep carcasses were found and burned. The carcasses of the reportedly 10 remaining shoats remained unfound.


Predation results in severe financial hardship for the livestock owners who often retaliate against these predators by using poison. Poisoning has devastating consequences for vultures and other scavengers and is the primary reason for the vulture’s rapid population decline of >80% over three generations, leading to the six Kenyan vulture species finding themselves on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered.


This underlying cause for the poisonings is an enormous challenge to those tasked to mitigate against it. We encourage the application of proven mitigation methods by those qualified to do so, as well as the enactment of the law on those guilty of conducting the poisoning. A successful prosecution in such a case would go a long way in sending out a strong message that poisoning of predators is not acceptable..


Primary considerations at the scene

At a poisoning scene there are three main considerations:

  1. Save the still living birds (the first being move them to the shade).

  2. Investigate the Crime Scene with the intention of bringing about a prosecution.

  3. Decontaminate the scene once the first two above are complete..


1. Save the still living

Following protocol an aerial search of the site was done at 12:00 before landing but the terrain was very thickly wooded. Nonetheless dead birds were seen from the air, as well as vultures seen in the air descending north of site (later searched).


At 13:40 Simon arrived on site to conduct triage and noted 3 live birds that were severely heat stressed. A Steppe Eagle, with very hot feet, and one White backed vulture, both with wrinkled sun dried corneas from staring at the sun. Poisoned animals are often unable to blink and will stare at bright sunlight developing corneal scars and destroyed retina. It is therefore critical to move all living birds to the shade as soon as possible.


The birds were moved to the shade on Simon’s arrival, and water sprinkled on their necks and feet to lower core temperature. They were then given 1ml of atropine each, followed by 20-45 ml of water and their crop palpitated to remove contents. Some of the people already on the scene had been trained to do first aid of this nature, but none had the basic equipment to do so. If left unattended, these three birds would certainly have died within hours.

Left: Simon with assistants preparing to treat White backed Vulture, already recovering after atropine injection. Right: Steppe Eagle’s cornea exposed to intense sunlight shows wrinkling posing potential permanent damage. Treated with eye-drops and resolved in 2 days.


Next we turned our attention to the dead birds to discover that some had very recently died in situ in completely open sun exposed ground. It can be very challenging to determine if the birds are alive or not. Six were found half standing, with clear moist turgid corneas and medium sized pupils that indicated death had been less than an hour. Had these been detected as being alive and moved into deep shade, and given basic first aid they may have recovered.

Two adult Rüppell’s Vultures that very recently died. Left in bright sunlight that may have been saved had they been moved into deep shade and had water sprinkled on them.


In the afternoon two more vultures were found alive, a Lappet-faced vulture and a White backed vulture. They were treated by KWS Vet, Dr Kariuki, and transported to the airfield where Simon was waiting with the other three survivors to be taken to Soysambu Raptor Center for further treatment. Before take-off all 5 birds were given additional atropine and hydration.


At Soysambu Raptor Centre the birds were placed in accommodation and kerosene heated boxes and checked on every 3 hours throughout the night.

Left: Heated box. The kerosene lamp heats metal pipes inside the box without noxious gases entering. A reliable ICU solution. Right: the intra-osseous ulna needle capped. Large boluses of fluids and some drugs can be injected at this site for as long as a week replacing more problematic IV routes.


2. Investigate the Crime Scene with the intention of bringing about a prosecution.

Dr Kariuki and his KWS team took multiple crop samples for analysis. Dead flies at the mouth of the Rüppell’s Vulture were a clear sign of poisoning. The use of forensic entomology such as this can confirm poisons use in the field and assist in launching a criminal investigation.

Left: taking crop samples. Right: dead flies at the mouth of the Rüppell’s Vulture.


The next day, on 13th November 2021 the continued search reveals more dead raptors. Three adult Rüppell’s Vultures, 3 Juvenile White-backed Vultures and 3 Steppe Eagle were found by Abraham Loomuna from The Peregrine Fund and local conservancy personnel.


3. Decontaminate the scene

The act of decontamination will in most cases itself contaminate the crime scene and have the potential to lose “chain of custody” of samples and remove forensic evidence like footprints, tyre tracks, poison, and poison containers. The urgency to remove poisoned animals to stop further deaths technically removes evidence.


While Olgilului Conservancy and KWS were leading the inquiry that may lead to those who did the poisoning, the other parties could play a more deductive role in obtaining evidence and a more proactive role in searching further from the immediate site as well as husbandry of the still living. In the haste to burn the vultures and eagles we noted that the Steppe Eagles were misidentified as Tawny Eagles, and the vultures were not properly identified, nor was each photographed, identified and age grouped (as per training protocols). Instead birds were already on the pile for incineration before these procedures had been done.

These birds had not been identified correctly or had individual photos taken or a proper inventory made. Seen here being prepared for incineration prior to these data being collected.


Lessons learned to improve response

While a great deal of productive work was done to report and contain the problem, and many are to be recognised for their good work and commitment, there is always room for improvement. Below we list our observations of those areas that need particular attention if we are to improve our methods to locate all poisoning victims and to remove any chance of further “secondary” poisoning and save lives. In suggesting these we aim to improve the collective response and perhaps save a few more vultures/eagles/wildlife from dying.


We noted a need to improve on the following:

  • Removal of still living but sick birds by first responders to cool, quiet, undisturbed shaded areas out of exposed, extreme heat If very cold or approaching nightfall, place the living in a warm, dry, quiet place.

  • Emphasise to rehydrate and encourage regurgitation immediately and by all means possible.

  • Inject with atropine immediately. It is the only way to save a life in all but strychnine poisoning (which is extremely uncommon in Kenya).

  • Restrain each bird by a cord to each leg using a non-tightening knot tied to a weight regardless of their disability. This is especially important 20 mins after an atropine injection where “recovery” can result in the bird walking or flying away (to die later).

  • Stay at the scene and continue to search for at least 3 days after the incident and at least up to 10km from the site and to make every effort to find dead carnivores and to collect dead and dying vultures at that new location. We know that poisoning sites continue to kill for days and can have an effect as much as 100km away. We detected an element of resistance or lethargy towards an extensive search, due to heat, thickness of the bush, dust etc.

  • Those on the ground should be in direct communication with an aerial search and if not in radio/cell phone communication, be prepared to physically indicate by arm gestures directions in which searches could be made.

  • All dead birds are valued scientific resources that we need to maximise. The National Museums of Kenya and others need full skins and skeletons especially today to use for reference specimens and in forensics. Pathology, parasitology, genetics and other studies that lend insight into these little known, yet Critically Endangered animals is important. We strongly suggest that a sufficient sample size (30 of each species) be bagged and transported to NMK/KWS pathology for examination and preservation.

  • Most important of all, prevention of new poisoning events. This poisoning event was predictable after the enormous livestock losses in the previous few nights. The methods used by the community to protect their livestock needs to be addressed. There needs to be an improved system for boma protection and methods for day time herders to avoid predation and workable incentives to communities for higher quality livestock production.

Support our work

In order to be able to save more birds we also need to replace our poisoning response kits and veterinary medicines. If you care for the plight of raptors and have the means to support us, please consider making a donation so we can again effectively respond to another poisoning event.


Acknowledgements

Eric Ole Reson, Abraham Loomuna, Ralph Buij and Darcy Ogada of the Peregrine Fund for alerting us to respond, and Ednah Nyambu of Nature Kenya, Salisha Chopra of BirdLife.


Dr Kariuki of KWS and his team including Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for coordinating decontamination and facilitating removal of live birds. Mutute, Charles Musyoke and Adbi Doti all of KWS for their assistance.


Director of Operation Oluluilui Patrick Papatiti for allowing us all to do our work.


Donno Dunn, Farlan Aviation for the flight to and back (carrying 5 sick and regurgitating) birds, on site assistance in treatment and locating the site.


Richard Bonham, Craig Miller, Daniel Popote of BigLife for vehicle access to and from the site.


The Soysambu Conservancy, Robin Boyd-Moss CEO, and Catherine Combes, Hon Warden.


The Kenya Bird of Prey Team - Nick Trent, Stratton Hatfield and Shiv Kapila who all kept the communications open and facilitated the rescues.


Dead raptor inventory


13 Rüppell’s Vultures - IUCN status: Critically Endangered

All adults accept No 9, a 2 year old Immature. A disproportionate loss of adults, the breeding population, is very serious for these slow breeders.

The 10 Rüppell’s Vultures found on November 12th.


18 White-backed Vultures - IUCN status: Critically Endangered

Here also a disproportionate loss of adults and sub adults is very serious for these slow breeders.

The 15 White-backed Vultures found on November 12th.


7 Steppe Eagles - IUCN status: Endangered

3 adult steppe Eagles and 1 juvenile. Disproportionate loss of adults, the breeding population is very serious for these slow breeders.

The 4 Steppe Eagles found on November 12th.

 

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Kenya Bird of Prey Trust

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