Saving the vulture from going the dodo way

CHAONA poses for a picture with a vulture.

VULTURES may not have a place on the list of the most beautiful creatures of the wild, neither do they make it on our menu list; but why are their populations falling drastically?

Africa has 11 species of vulture, and nine of these are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered. In fact three are said to be critically endangered and on the verge of extinction.
The white-backed vulture population, for instance, has declined by 98 percent over the years.
Asia and Africa have experienced recent catastrophic declines in populations of most species of vulture. The declines in Asia have been linked to poisoning by the veterinary drug diclofenac.
In October 2015, scientists announced the African vulture crisis following data that showed huge declines in vulture populations across the continent, with three species moving from endangered to critically-endangered.
But one young award-winning ecologist has devoted her career to saving the vulture from going the way of the dodo.
Chaona Phiri fell in love with the vultures by accident while on a visit to a farm in Chisamba, where she was studying the Zambian Barbet, a small endemic bird that she had fallen in love with.
In fact, the 30-year-old did not like the vultures because they were a nuisance, destroying the Barbets’ nests as they perched on the trees where the little birds were nesting.
“They used to annoy me, because they are these big heavy birds,” says Chaona, who works for BirdWatch Zambia as a researcher.
But one gory discovery would change her perception about the vulture.
One day, Chaona stumbled upon six dead vultures, their heads and feet missing.
“I didn’t understand why anyone would kill a vulture and take off its head,” she says. “I was very disturbed, I felt very embarrassed to be an African.”
Vulture heads and feet are commonly used by witchdoctors, based on the myth that they can foretell the future because of their keen eyesight. This explains why some of the dead vultures Chaona discovered had been decapitated.
According to Chaona, in Zambia, there are two main reasons why vulture populations are falling – poisoning by poachers as well as use of vulture parts by witchdoctors.
“Poachers poison vultures for two reasons. Vultures serve as sentinels, if poachers kill an animal, vultures will circle above and the wildlife scouts will know where to look. So, poachers will open up the carcass and put poison and vultures will come down to eat and they will not get up and the scouts will not know where to look,” says Chaona.
In one incident, 550 vultures died when they feasted on an elephant carcass that had been killed by poachers in South Luangwa National Park.
But what was widely reported was the dead elephant.
“For me, that was the answer to why we have lost so many vultures. How do you lose 500 birds and not talk about it? That triggered something in me that something has to be done,” says Chaona.
While Chaona only read and heard about the 550 poisoned vultures, she would later witness first-hand such destruction.
In April last year, while working on a project to save cranes in Mfuwe, Chaona and her team were called to a disturbing sight. An elephant had been killed by poachers and its carcass abandoned. But when the team arrived at the spot, they found around the dead elephant 105 dead vultures.
“It was a very depressing sight,” says Chaona. “We went there for cranes, which were also being poisoned, only to end up with poisoned vultures.”
Among the dead vultures, Chaona identified four different species.
“I was sad for a long time,” she says.
Safe Zones
Using a small grant from Birdlife International, BirdWatch Zambia identified five farms in Chisamba which have now been set up as vulture safe zones.
Chisamba already has a good population of vultures that patrol the farms for any discarded carcass.
“We thought of setting up a place where the vultures can feed from without the risk of being poisoned,” says Chaona.
BirdWatch is also advocating the banning of organophosphates, chemicals that are commonly used in crop farming.
She says Zambia is one of very few countries in the world that is still using the deadly chemicals.
“What is the push of keeping these deadly pesticides on the market if they are banned elsewhere? You ask yourself, if these things are so poisonous, why do we even put them in the food we eat?” she wonders.
Chaona also says the law should be tightened in order to stop people from using pesticides to kill wildlife.
“Our legislation is really nice, especially the wildlife act, but it has loopholes, especially on the issue of pesticides,” she says.
According to Chaona, the law does not provide a clear basis for arrest where pesticides are used to kill wildlife.
There are a number of organophosphates on the Zambian market. These include Endosulfan, Monocrotophos, Nagphos, Phoskill, Multilaxin and Ciltara.
Chaona says there are alternative chemicals that are bird-friendly that can be used on crops.
Exciting Work
The most exciting work Chaona has done with vultures is tagging the birds in order to keep a tab on the populations.
One of the birds is fitted with a satellite tracker to monitor its movement.
Vultures are known to be very mobile.
“Vultures are clever, they don’t waste their energy flapping their wings, they just go high up and glide with the themos,” says Chaona, her eyes beaming with excitement.
She becomes animated talking about birds.
“We have seen a lot of vultures from Kruger National Park in the South Luangwa National Park,” she says.
Chaona is now trained in tagging vultures, but she is still reluctant to do it without supervision from an expert.
“The idea that these birds are almost on the verge of extinction makes you take extra care. I don’t want to be that scientist who researched a bird into extinction,” she says.
Chaona’s work with the vultures has already won her an award from the National Geographic Society.
And earlier in April, she also won the Young Conservation Leadership award by Birdlife International for her efforts in bird conservation.
But she says there has been very little information on vultures in Zambia.
“Things that lack information usually intrigue me, because I get really curious. I want to know why it’s like that. So, that is what got me interested in the vultures,” says Chaona.
“Although I was an ecologist, I did not fully appreciate the role that vultures play in our ecosystem. I knew they are waste managers, but that was it until I read about their ability to feed on things that are infected with tuberculosis, rabies or bubonic plague and still not catch those diseases because their gastro intestine tract is very acidic,” she says.
Chaona’s desire is to make people understand vultures and how important they are in the ecosystem. Vultures are scavengers and clear carcasses across the savannah.
Chaona now thinks of vultures as cute.
“People say you can’t say vulture and cute in the same sentence, but the hooded vulture is really cute and tame,” she says.
Chaona’s interest in wildlife started when she was a little girl. Her father, who was in the army, was a nature-lover and usually shared stories about his experiences in the wild.
Chaona is one of very few women in her field. She is now studying for her PhD.

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