This article was written for the University of Exeter’s ‘Field Course Fortnight’ blog. Read the original piece here.
If you see dead things in Africa, there should be vultures circling above it. A child can tell you that. Even if you’re one of those people who finds vultures to be ghoulish, off-putting and reminiscent of a decrepit old funeral director, you should at least find things odd if carcasses on the savannah are un-touched by the birds.
That’s just what’s happening across much of Kenya, and to witness it is unsettling. We saw two rhino carcasses in the time we spent in the country, yet not a single vulture was seen even investigating the bodies of Africa’s second largest land animal. In fact, over the whole 12 days I was there, I only recall seeing a few birds overhead around Naivasha and Hell’s Gate National Park, and a roost of Ruppell’s griffon vultures at the latter – down to less than 20 pairs, about a tenth of what it was.
Poaching is well known across the world, but another threat is proving just as lethal to Africa’s vultures as the former is to elephants and rhinos. Poisoning is subtle in application, devastating in impact. Sometimes the vultures are ‘bycatch’ of poisoned carcasses set to kill big cats in retaliation for livestock killings. Other times the birds are deliberate targets of poachers, attempting to wipe out the sentinels that otherwise alert rangers to the location of their latest slaughtered elephant. Whatever the reason, ingestion of meat laced with agro-chemicals like carbofuran has lead to staggering declines of the birds across Kenya and Africa as a whole – in some cases up to 98%.
It’s a case study of medieval slaughter, but it’s an issue that is in no way solvable overnight – reflective of many of Africa’s conservation crises. Vultures are a victim of a jenga tower of escalating disasters. They’re fall-out from the wars raging for rhino horn and ivory, a casualty of the on-going conflicts between pastoralists and predators as people and ‘the wild’ become increasingly merged together. When anthrax and rabies start spreading out of control in the absence of nature’s bin men, will the loss of the vultures even be mourned as the catalyst except by a learned few? How do you expect everyone to be so well-versed in the web of nature when it’s so complex in itself?
Those learned few are the best hope Kenya’s natural world have got, let alone the vultures. It’s inevitable that one of the few places in the world left with an intact, megafauna-rich ecosystem at the same time as a fast growing population is going to face huge difficulties, no matter how much ‘the benefits of wildlife tourism’ is painted up. Kenya needs learned few like Martin Odino, birder extraordinaire and dedicated to reverse the fall of the vulture, or Samuel Mutisya, never giving up to protect the rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, to create a learned many.
A great songwriter once said “Nature is a language, can’t you read.” Well, actually it was Morrissey, but it speaks sense. We all have to be attuned to the dialect of the natural world, even if our interpretation is an awkward stammering rather than completely fluent. Thankfully, Kenya has some of the best interpreters you could ask for, and they need to be listened to now.