Kenyan wildlife numbers have been dwindling due to poaching and illegal trade in animal parts as well as human wildlife conflict.
Poachers regularly poison the animals, which in turn affects scavengers. With an electronic platform dubbed the African Wildlife Poisoning Database (AWPD), conservationists are able to keep an eye on vulture populations as they are the most vulnerable to adverse effects of the poisoning.
Barely a month into the launch of the new platform, already 300 poisoning incidents which killed over 8,000 animals of 40 different species in 15 African countries have been recorded.
Aside from vultures, other affected animals include lions, leopards, elephants, hyenas, impalas, cranes, and storks.
The portal, which is the first of its kind on the continent, was officially launched by the Peregrine Fund and the Endangered Wildlife Trust. The two organisations are working with the public and private sector conservationists in Kenya and other African countries on this initiative.
“Conservation starts and ends with data. So effective action can only be taken if we understand where poisoning incidents occur, affected species and the reasons behind their poisoning,” said Dr Lizanne Roxburgh, Senior Scientist at the Endangered Wildlife Trust.
Wildlife poisoning data originally existed as fragmented information in different organisations across Africa.
Darcy Ogada, Assistant Director of Africa Programmes at the Peregrine Fund, said the new portal has brought the information to a central place thus making it easy for conservationists to understand the magnitude of the poisoning problem and work collectively to address it.
The digitised information, presented through hi-tech interactive maps, also allows scientists to monitor wildlife poisoning trends faster than previous paper records which were time consuming and cumbersome to analyse.
Dr Ogada said that the electronic platform is an essential tool for documenting poisoning which is a silent crime that has reached epic proportions in Africa.
To enhance information gathering, the online platform has also been designed to facilitate simple and effective capturing of relevant data which can be done in real-time through computers or by mobile phone devices in the field.
Mr Martin Odino, an ornithologist (bird specialist) at the National Museums of Kenya, said that the database will help the country to identify wildlife poisoning hotspots and assess the impact of conservation projects aimed at curbing the vice.
“If the numbers rise it can be an indication that the cases are going up. So urgent measures to address the problem will be required. But we are already sensitising the community on the importance of conservation, as well as letting them know how to identify and report poisoning incidents.”
According to Dr Ogada, poisoning incidents are common among communities living near game parks or reserves that experience human-wildlife conflict.
If wild animals — including hyenas and lions — attack cattle in neighbouring households, affected people usually seek revenge by lacing the remains of the dead domestic animals with toxic pesticides.
Most of the time it is vultures that reach the carcasses first, before targeted wild animals get to the scene.
They thus end up dying in droves after ingesting poison from contaminated meat since the birds usually feed in large numbers. “So, one poisoned animal can kill very many vultures. And that’s why they are the most vulnerable to the adverse effects of poisoning,” Dr Ogada said.
Studies show that five out of the eight vulture species in Kenya have declined by 84 per cent. The vultures at risk include Ruppell’s, White-backed, White-headed, Hooded and Lappet-faced varieties.
These birds clean the environment by getting rid of animal carcasses which harbour harmful pathogens.
Therefore, environmentalists warn that their decline could eventually cause an infectious epidemic in the country.
They refer to the Asian Vulture Crisis — specifically in India during the 1990s — where a 95 per cent decline of three vulture species occurred as a result of poisoning.
This led to an influx in wild dogs as they were no longer facing competition for carcasses from the vultures.
More wild dogs, consequently led to higher incidences of rabies.
Leopards, which normally prey on feral dogs, also increased thus spiking the number of attacks on people and their children.