Now it’s official: ivory poachers are using poisons to kill elephants or contaminate their dead bodies in order to eliminate the vultures that might otherwise reveal the presence of carcasses to the authorities.
Conservationists have been aware for some time that this practice is going on, but now new research has revealed the full extent of the problem – between March 2012 and July 2014, there were 2,044 recorded vulture deaths in 11 elephant-poaching incidents in seven African countries.
This is one third of all vulture deaths attributed to poisoning recorded since 1970.
In one incident in Namibia, an estimated 500 vultures died after feeding on a single elephant carcass; in another in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, 476 died after eating from four poisoned elephants.
Up until 2012, vulture mortality was believed to be mainly an unintended consequence of livestock farmers illegally controlling predators such as lions, leopards and hyenas.
But though not direct targets until the past three years, African vulture declines have been severe in recent decades – white-headed vulture numbers have plummeted by 96 per cent in 50 years, and there may be only 5,500 individuals left, experts say.
Other species have also suffered massive decreases of between 80-97 per cent.
Darcy Ogada, assistant director of Africa Programs for The Peregrine Fund, said the threat associated with elephant poaching was not even mentioned at a conference held in April 2012 to address the problem of declining vulture populations.
“It has exploded in magnitude with the ongoing slaughter of elephants and currently represents the biggest cause of vulture mortality,” she added.
Writing in the journal Oryx, the scientists who compiled the new data said the recent surge in the illegal use of poisons exposed weaknesses in the way they were regulated and that better retail controls were needed.
But they added: “Because ivory poachers already operate outside any legal framework, African governments require international support in applying more punitive sentencing against mass wildlife poisoning.”
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Read the full paper in Oryx