BirdLife Zimbabwe partners with local communities to protect vultures

Mary Mundeya / Regina Pasipanodya

Lupane is one of the communities in Zimbabwe that act as an animal corridor, so naturally, human wildlife conflict is prevalent in the area, which borders the giant Hwange National Park – the country’s largest national park.

Most of the people in areas like Shabula, Sotani, and Simunyu villages in Lupane have grappled human-wildlife conflict for years.

Elephants and buffaloes have been a menace in the area destroying crops every now and then. Hyenas have also been problematic and have accounted for the loss of a lot of livestock, especially during the rainy season when they take advantage of tall grass and vegetation as cover before pouncing.

In retaliation, the communities often use poison and snares to reduce the impact of the conflict.  

As an unitended consequence however, a large number of vultures ansd other scavengers have also died as a result of secondary poisoning after consuming the poisoned animals.

Thulisani Nkomo (31) grew up in Shabula village and is no stranger to human wildlife conflict. He has experienced it his entire life.

“Our crops have been destroyed by elephants numerous times. During the farming seasons when there are vast grasslands, hyenas attack and kill not only our livestock but people also live in constant fear of wildlife attacks.

“Therefore, in retaliation, since its part of our nature as humans, we try to fight back and eliminate the problems in our lives.

“But, it is dangerous for people to attack and kill a hyena or even a lion face to face, therefore, people would use poison smeared on dead goats to trap and kill the hyenas.

But, in doing so, vultures have fallen victim to secondary poisoning,” said Thulisani.

Recent reports reveal that poisoning is the primary reason that vultures, which are the Nature`s Clean-up Crew, are facing extinction.

Vultures are important in that they provide free ecological services of cleaning the environment by eating carcasses thereby helping to counter the spread of diseases.

According to statistics provided by BirdLife Zimbabwe, six out of 11 species of vultures in Africa are threatened with extinction. More than 64% of these vultures are killed because of the use of poison – either as primary or secondary poisoning.

Vulture Deaths in Zimbabwe

There are many incidences that have been recorded in Zimbabwe that have led to the death of many vultures.

In 2012, 191 vultures were poisoned in Gonarezhou National Park after eating a poisoned elephant carcass that was killed by poachers.

In 2013, 40 vultures were poisoned at a farm in Fort Rixon after feeding on a cow that was treated with a veterinary drug that was toxic to vultures.

In 2013, about 200 vultures died in Hwange National Park.

In 2015, 80 vultures were poisoned in Hwange National Park after consuming a poisoned elephant carcass that was laced with cyanide by poachers.

In 2016, 94 vultures were poisoned in Binga district after eating a poisoned hippo carcass that was killed by poachers.

In 2019, 55 vultures were poisoned in Matabeleland North province after feeding on three elephant carcasses that were poisoned by poachers.

These are some of the examples of the devastating impact of poisoning on vulture populations in Zimbabwe which makes poisoning the leading cause of vulture mortality in Africa, accounting for over 60% of vulture deaths.

Vulture Support Group Intervention (VSG)

BirdLife Zimbabwe’s Preventing Extinction Programmes_Vulture Conservation Manager, Leeroy Moyo stressed that it is possible that widespread poisoning of wildlife as a responsive measure to address human-wildlife conflict in communities could wipe out the entire breeding population of vultures in Zimbabwe.

BirdLife Zimbabwe’s Preventing Extinction Programmes_Vulture Conservation Manager, Leeroy Moyo making a presentation to Shabula Vulture Support group in Lupane 

“From the testimonies of people in communities especially those close to game parks that used to see species of vultures in huge volumes, areas where we previously encountered vultures on day to day basis-the numbers have declined and in some areas, there are no more vultures. This is evident that the vultures are declining without putting exact figures and this is worrying,” he said. 

To address this emergency, BirdLife Zimbabwe has seen it necessary to increase the local technical capacity of communities in Sotani, Simunyu, and Shabula since these are villages that have been affected by HWC in a manner that could also harm the vultures.

Therefore, we have been advocating for the use of locally, cost-effective and environmentally friendly measures to reduce human-wildlife conflict incidences.

“For example, as Birdlife Zimbabwe we are ensuring that there is an efficient use of scarecrows (periodically changing their clothes & position in the fields), encourage farmers to always herd their livestock since most HWC incidents happen when livestock are left unattended; build/ reinforce kraals to be predator proof while installing motion sensor lights that will be triggered when a predator passes by,” said Moyo.

“In addition, communication material continues to be developed and shared to support communities in understanding and mitigating human-wildlife conflict. Therefore, capacity-building meetings are being held to help the communities become aware of the value of vultures, the threats they are facing, and the urgent need to conserve these iconic species.

“Therefore, we are introducing Vulture Support Groups (VSG) and currently, the first group was established in Shabula, Sotani, and Simunyu villages with 30 members in each group.”

The VSG will provide a platform to educate people in communities especially those close to game parks about the importance of wildlife protection and conservation.

“More importantly, communities need to understand the importance and roles that vultures play in the ecosystem,” he added.

Importance of vultures

According to Birdlife Zimbabwe reports, vultures are very important to the earth because they provide vital ecosystem services and socioeconomic benefits.

By consuming large amounts of carrion from animal carcasses, they release nutrients back into the soil, promoting the important nutrient cycle and energy transfer through food webs.

 Apart from controlling the spread of diseases, vultures also promote the removal of soil and water contaminants.

Vultures also help livestock keepers by reducing the costs of carcass disposal and preventing the spread of diseases such as anthrax, botulism, and rabies.

Vultures are however threatened with extinction due to factors such as poisoning, habitat loss, collision with power lines, and illegal wildlife trade.

“Therefore, protecting vultures is essential for maintaining a healthy and balanced environment for all living beings, said Moyo.

Sibanye Animal Trust Gender and Community Development Officer, Thembelihle Mhlanga, said the self-governing volunteer groups were given the mandate to raise awareness of vultures, champion vulture conservation work, and participate in vulture monitoring exercises in their respective areas.

Shabula Vulture Support Group posing for a photo after a training with Birdlife in Lupane

“The programme of vulture conservation came on a positive note to us. We noted that engaging communities in conservation practices would bring a positive result as people at the grassroots would be at the forefront of the fight to provide wildlife-safe zones.

“We have seen that vultures are on the verge of extinction, for example, in our community, it is now rare to see a vulture. An animal copse can now go for days until it decomposes without seeing a single vulture and this is not a good sign”, said Mhlanga.

One of the VSG members, Sthabile Ndlovu commends BirdLife Zimbabwe for taking such a step in working with communities toward wildlife protection and conservation initiatives.

“Being part of the VSG is something that will make me  grow and understand the need for wildlife protection and conservation,” she said.

To consolidate the existence of these groups, BirdLife Zimbabwe is working with the VSGs to refine and adapt their organisational constitutions with outlined visions and activities. These documents will guide the VSG members in the groups as they progress along their vulture conservation journey.

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