discussion / Wildlife Crime  / 29 December 2016

Vulture poisoning - tech based solutions?

Hello all,

I wanted to start a new discussion, and hopefully get some expert opinion on possible tech-based solutions to combat the current vulture-poisoning crisis. Vultures across the Southern African sub-region are being decimated by poisoning events. Th sitution is complex, as vultures are killed for different reasons. Targeted poisoning of vultures for the traditional medicine/uMuthi trade in South Africa is very common, and worringly, appears to be spreading to neighbouring countries like Namibia and Botswana, presumably as vulture numbers dwindle in SA. Indirect vulture mortality takes place when commercial farmers lay out poisoned carcasses to kill "vermin" like jackal. Most recently, the ongoing rhino poaching scourge has resulted in poachers leaving poisoned rhino or elephant carcasses behind in order to deliberately kill vultures, as they are seen as indicators of poaching events. The combined mortalities being suffered from these events is hammering vulture populations aross several countries and several species.

Recent advances in GPS-satellite vulture packs have allowed reserachers to track vulture movements over long time periods. Activity sensors have also given information on general activity patterns over varying temporal scales. Thus, if a mortality event is triggered or the GPS fixes are clustering for a length of time, this usually means there is something wrong and the bird may be dead. This has allowed conservation staff and researchers to detect rhino and elephant carcasses, often much quicker than using drones, foot-based patrols or other methods. There is even currently talk of fitting vultures with Go-Pro type cameras and using them for security surveillence.

Although the main agricultural poisons being used are now banned from production, farmers and communities appear to be able to access an endless supply of stockpiled chemicals. The distribution of these chemicals is therefore incredible difficult to police and it is likely that we will run out of vultures before the stock of illegal chemicals is depleted.

The issue is that measures being used currently to protect vultures are reactive rather than pro-active. Education and awareness campaigns are crucial but cannot effect change on their own. In my opinion, we need to also come up with an approach that actively prevents birds from being killed.

With this in mind, does anyone have any ideas or suggestions as to any tech that can be used to deter vultures from consuming poisoned meat? Is there some sensor that can be developed to detect a chemical signature or cue if a vulture lands on a poisoned carcass? This could then trigger an alarm that scares the individual and others away before they consume anything? I was also thinking of ways to keep vultures from foraging in dentified poisoning "hot-spots", perhaps some sort of virtual barrier type sensor that can be triggered if the bird crosses into a danger zone, and would unsettle it and cause it to keep flying.

I realise it is a long-shot and that placing devices on a large number of birds is just not feasible but Ireally wanted to just open up a discussion to see if there are any ideas out there. So if anyone has any ideas please let me know!


I'm so glad that you raised this issue, @Tarik+Bodasing .

For those unfamiliar with this problem, there's a helpful paper by Darcy Ogada here. See Table 2 on p9 for a list of the most abused pesticides in Africa that have been linked to deliberate wildlife poisonings. I've heard about poisonings using chlorinated hydrocarbons, organophosphates, strychnine, heavy metals, cyanide and other chemicals. Can you share more detail on the specific poisons that are being used in your region, Tarik? 

My understanding is that the availability and access to regulated poisons is variable, depending on local conditions (for instance, there may be greater access to cyanide near mine sites). This would mean that chemical-based sensors for an early alert system would need to be developed for specific sites to detect the poison(s) that are most accessible in that region.

In my understanding, it should be feasible to develop a sensor to detect the presence/absence of cyanide in water. @Eric+Becker on our team at WWF may have insights from his discussions with a few chemical engineers.

In terms of poisoning methods, I'm aware of many cases in which water points and salt licks were intentionally laced, as well as poisoning of carcasses to intentionally target predators and scavengers. What other strategies are you aware of, Tarik?

This is a long shot, and I don't have much of a biology background, but :  Would it be feasible to amplify the traces of human handling of meat enough to make that serve as a deterrent to any birds consuming tampered meat?   My assumption is that a human has to handle meat to poison it, some traces of human-ness (fairmones/body oils) must rub off on that meat. Rather than designing sensors to trigger off specific chemicals, would we be better off just triggering off human intervention?  Not sure how the sensors would be deployed, but... 

Thanks for sharing this interesting post Tarik and your insights into the problem....I like your thinking Kbala but as I understand it a sensor to detect human interference would be practically impossible with the current state of this kind of technology and at best it would be very expensive thus not feasible to use on enough birds to make an impact...

Tarik do you happen to know which of the 3 causes you mention causes the highest number of vulture mortalities? Or is there is any research on this topic?

-use in traditional medicine/uMuthi trade

-commercial farmers laying out poisoned 

-rhino poachers that leaves poisoned  carcasses behind 

This is a great ecological concern considering the knock on effect the lose of Vultures and other raptors have on local ecosystems...






Hi Isla,

The 3 threats are all situational and location dependent. For example, in South Africa there is a very well established muti industry and huge muti markets in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng. Use of vulture parts for traditional medicine is embedded in various cultures and there are numerous cases every year of vulture carcasses found with heads and other parts missing. There are very few parts of South Africa where predators can be found in high densities outside Protected Areas (as compared to Namibia) and so I would say that direct poisoning of vultures for Muti is probably the main caue of mortality in SA.

In Namibia, vultures are mainly (so far) an indirect mortality as a result of farmers setting out poisoned carcasses to kill predators that are either perceived threats to livestock or are actual problem animals. These farmers are targeting jackal, brown hyaena and caracal in aprticular but the end result for vultures is no different than direct poisoning for muti. Same agricultural poison used, same result. However, very worringly, there have been several incidents recently of direct poisoning of vultures for traditional medicine, particularly in the Zambezi/Caprivi area of Namibia.

As to mortalities of vultures from feeding of poisoned rhino or elephant carcasses, this is still a fairly new (I say that with not much info to go on) threat and only the various protected area authorities in the different countries will have this info. As this threat grows, i am sure that the Vulture Working Groups in the respective countries, as well as the research scientists involved will be able to map this form of poisoning and provid data on which form is resulting in the deaths of more birds. At this stage Im pretty sure that all these types of poisoning, irrespective of the root reason are causing large numbers of mortalities, given that to a vulture, a carcass is a carcass is a carcass.

I would say that it is imprtant to understand the reasons for the different forms of poisoning and then we can fight it. Bantu tribes have a very strong link to the use of animal parts for traditional medicine and black magic etc. so it is no surprise that direct poisoning of vultures for the muti trade is happening in the Zambezi region. In contrast, the poisoning of vultures in central and southern Namibia in particular is more linked to farmers (German/Afrikaans/Herero/Damara/Nama) aiming to kill predators and not vultures specifically. And of course rhino poachers and syndicates can be from any nationality,tribe or culture. So these 3 forms have different roots and need to be addressed differently. However, we are in a crisis situation and the 3 threats need to be dealt with immediately via law enforcement and strong sentances, while the research continues. We simply cannot afford to wait.

Just for your info. I was recently sent a link by another member of the forum on a new publication by Andrea Santangeli. Andrea and his team mapped vulture poisoning across the landscape for the entire country based on data gathered by various organizations. It is a fantastic paper with some really good data and reccommendations for future work and a way forward. The title is:

"Understanding, quantifying and mapping the use of poison by commercial
farmers in Namibia – Implications for scavengers' conservation and
ecosystem health"

I am aware also that SANBI in South Africa are offering a bursary for a Post-grad student to do a MSc. project on vulture use in the muti industry in SA and I know of several students who have worked on projects in SA related to the use of animal parts and potential effects on wild populations. Andre Botha of the Endangered Wildlife Trust in SA will have all or a lot of this info.

Hope all this helps!