At least 94 critically-endangered vultures have been found poisoned in south-eastern Zimbabwe by poachers almost certainly trying to hide the killing of an elephant, conservationists say.
The dead African white-backed vultures were found on Friday around the carcass of an elephant that had been killed for its ivory near to Zimbabwe’s border post with neighbouring Mozambique. One vulture survived.
“It is an area that is quite busy with poaching activity and (game scouts) did a routine surveillance flight over the area and they came across the elephant carcass and the dead birds,” said Andre Botha, the co-chair of a vulture specialist group with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Separate sources have confirmed that the birds were found near the Chiqualaquala border post.
Vultures are sometimes killed by poachers to stop them from circling and alerting rangers to the scene of a kill.
“It looks as if the poisoning was done intentionally but more to eradicate the birds from the area rather than for belief use or muthi purposes,” Botha, who is based in South Africa, told News24. That was a reference to the fact that vulture body parts are often traded as charms.
The sole surviving vulture has been taken to a rehabilitation facility in Zimbabwe.
Botha said it’s possible that some of the dead birds were nesting as this is the vulture breeding season.
Leading South African-based vulture conservation group Vulpro said in a statement on Facebook that the deaths were “a devastating blow”.
The IUCN has declared most of southern Africa’s vulture species to be either critically endangered or endangered due to human-induced threats.
Vultures play a vital role in the ecosystem, cleaning the veld of carcasses and the diseases that they harbour. Conservationists warn that without vultures, outbreaks of diseases like rabies and anthrax, which affect humans and their livestock, will likely become more common.