By Nic Elliot
Poison is wreaking havoc on wildlife populations throughout Africa. It affects a wide variety of species, ranging from elephants, lions and eagles, to bees, fish and dung beetles.
Poison is the major driver of vulture population declines throughout Africa and is a critical threat to terrestrial carnivores such as lions, as whole prides can be eliminated in a single poisoning event.
It is an ongoing threat with recent examples highlighting the severity and widespread nature of wildlife poisoning: 500 vultures dead in Namibia following a poached elephant carcass being laced with poison; over 100 elephants were killed in Zimbabwe after their salt licks and watering holes were poisoned; the famous Marsh Pride of lions eating a poisoned cow carcass in the Masai Mara; and thousands of waterbirds harvested at rice schemes in Kenya using poisons.
Apart from the shocking nature of these events, they highlight the multitude of reasons why people poison wildlife. The vultures were poisoned out of fear that their presence would alert rangers to the poached elephant, the elephants were killed for their ivory, the lions were poisoned because they had killed a cow, and birds are poisoned to be sold for food.
Then of course, there are after effects: If a poisoned carcass is not properly disposed of, the poison can continue to kill. A hyena eats a poisoned carcass and dies, a vulture feeds on the hyena and dies, a fly settles on the vulture and dies. If the hyena or vulture had offspring, they too are likely to perish due to starvation. An often overlooked fact is that these same poisons can, and do, kill people, either through direct contact or through eating poisoned meat.
Many poisonous substances are legal, inexpensive and widely available. Substances such as Marshal are in fact registered pesticides, but it is a criminal offence to use them against wildlife [if convicted of killing a threatened species, the maximum penalty is KES 20 million and/or life imprisonment].
Pesticides and other poisons kill quickly and quietly and are therefore relatively easy to conceal from authorities. Combatting poisoning is therefore extremely difficult. Yet the effects of poison can be minimised through rapid and informed response. By knowing how to identify a poisoning event, how to help affected animals, treat the scene like the crime-scene it is and properly sterilise the area, we can limit the death toll and secure convictions of wildlife poisoners.
With this in mind, a group of concerned conservationists, comprising the Mara Lion Project, The Peregrine Fund, Nature Kenya and Birdlife International, organised the first ever Wildlife Poisoning Response Training in Kenya.
Held at Ilkeliani Camp in the Maasai Mara on 15th and 16th November 2016 and led by Andre Botha, a wildlife poisoning expert from the Endangered Wildlife Trust, the training covered all aspects of wildlife poisoning and how to minimise its impacts.
While the majority of the 41 participants were based in the Masai Mara, others travelled from Lewa, Borana, Samburu, Soysambu, Laikipia and Amboseli. The trainees left with the knowledge to limit the impacts of poisoning events and are committed to training colleagues
within their organisations. This will help to ensure that the information is passed on and has a wide reach. Plans are also underway to conduct more training sessions and spread this knowledge to all areas of Kenya. Through rapid and informed response, we can help to limit the impacts of wildlife poisoning. This training event was supported by San Diego Zoo, the African Wildlife Foundation and Fondation Segré.