Ninety four Critically Endangered vultures were found dead after they had been feeding on a poisoned elephant carcass.
It is thought that the elephant was killed with a watermelon laced with a pesticide, which experts from Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) are attempting to identify.
“The tusks of the elephant were removed,” says FZS’s Hugo van der Westerhuizen, who wrote the wildlife poisoning report, “so not sure whether the cause of the vulture deaths is an accidental, secondary poisoning, or a deliberate lacing of the carcass to cause their deaths.”
Close-up of a poisoned white backed vulture © Hugo van der Westerhuizen
The latter is sometimes done by elephant poachers in order to avoid detection by rangers and other wildlife authorities, due to the circling behaviour of vultures over carcasses.
The poisoning incident occurred near the border with Mozambique, an area that is often used for illegal wildlife trade between the two countries.
BirdLife Zimbabwe is planning to increase its efforts to protect this declining species.
“This is a huge setback for vulture conservation efforts in Zimbabwe and the region,” says Fadzai Matsvimbo, manager of the Preventing Extinctions Programme at BirdLife Zimbabwe.
“The incident took place within the borders of Zimbabwe, but vultures are wide-ranging birds and could have come from neighbouring countries.”
Of the 11 species of vulture found in Africa, four are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List and three as Endangered.