Poisoning Africa’s natural wealth

African White-backed Vultures poisoned in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal in November 2013. (André Botha)

African White-backed Vultures poisoned in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal in November 2013. (André Botha)

One of the tools poachers have used to kill rhinos and elephants in Southern Africa is a controversial pesticide that is easily available over the counter. Poachers lace cabbage leaves with the pesticide called Carbofuran to bait rhinos and kill them. The method has been used recently in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa because it is quieter and less easily detected than shooting. Carbuforan is a potent pesticide used to control pests on agricultural crops. 

Chiefly manufactured in the United States (US), its use is banned in developed countries, but in most African countries it is easily traded. It has become the most widely abused of the toxic chemicals that are responsible for the deaths of up to 500 000 wild birds and animals each year in South Africa. According to newly published research in Kenya, this may be the tip of the iceberg as most pesticide poisonings go unreported. According to researcher Darcy Ogada, Carbuforan is known as “lion killer” among the owners of agro-vet shops and their customers near wildlife areas in Kenya. In the rice fields of western Kenya, where it is used to poison birds for bush meat, it is known locally as dawa ya ndege — “a poison for birds”. 

The lion population in East Africa has been decimated by poisoning in recent years, Ogada says. In the early 1990s, for instance, the entire population of lions in Amboseli National Park was lost, mainly through poisoning, and it has been estimated that lions will soon be extinct in southern Kenya due to spearing and poisoning. “In western Kenya, bird poachers poison water birds using snails as bait,” says Ogada. “The poachers collect Bulinus snails and use a thin stick to force the snail against its shell and then insert Carbofuran granules into the shell cavity.” 

Her research was published in April in The Power of Poison: Pesticide poisoning of Africa’s wildlife, in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Ogada says the impacts of poison have been most devastating for bird populations and carnivores, particularly scavengers such as hyenas. 

“The reasons wildlife are poisoned include control of damage-causing animals, harvesting for food or traditional medicine, and poaching for wildlife products. All may entail different methods and agents, but all with the same approximate outcome,” she says. The use of poisons as a tool in “bio-warfare” emerged in Southern Africa during colonial times, when strychnine was used for predator control.

Banning and penalties 

“More recent evidence suggests that the history of intensive wildlife poisoning in Southern Africa has carried on with little respite since the intensive poisoning campaigns of the late 1880s,” she says. “Historical declines in the range and numbers of Cape vultures in the Cape province from before 1905 until 1978 suggest that poisoning remained a problem throughout this period, particularly for carnivores, but there were also campaigns specifically targeting the ‘vulture problem’.”

Though 83% of African countries now have national laws banning the use of poisons to kill wildlife, they are seldom enforced. Most are also signatories to international treaties, including the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, which prohibits the use of drugs, poisons, poisoned weapons or poisoned baits for hunting, capturing or fishing. 

However, there are few penalties for non-compliance with these international conventions. Poisonings are also seldom reported, and even when they are, local authorities are reluctant to follow them up or to share information with conservation organisations. South Africa is the only African country that has an organisation dedicated to the problem of wildlife poisonings, says Ogada. 

The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Poison Working Group has estimated that in excess of 500 000 wild birds and animals die from poisoning alone in South Africa every year.

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