I wanted to start a new discussion, and hopefully get some expert opinion on possible tech-based solutions to combat the current vulture-poisoning crisis. Vultures across the Southern African sub-region are being decimated by poisoning events. Th sitution is complex, as vultures are killed for different reasons. Targeted poisoning of vultures for the traditional medicine/uMuthi trade in South Africa is very common, and worringly, appears to be spreading to neighbouring countries like Namibia and Botswana, presumably as vulture numbers dwindle in SA. Indirect vulture mortality takes place when commercial farmers lay out poisoned carcasses to kill "vermin" like jackal. Most recently, the ongoing rhino poaching scourge has resulted in poachers leaving poisoned rhino or elephant carcasses behind in order to deliberately kill vultures, as they are seen as indicators of poaching events. The combined mortalities being suffered from these events is hammering vulture populations aross several countries and several species.
Recent advances in GPS-satellite vulture packs have allowed reserachers to track vulture movements over long time periods. Activity sensors have also given information on general activity patterns over varying temporal scales. Thus, if a mortality event is triggered or the GPS fixes are clustering for a length of time, this usually means there is something wrong and the bird may be dead. This has allowed conservation staff and researchers to detect rhino and elephant carcasses, often much quicker than using drones, foot-based patrols or other methods. There is even currently talk of fitting vultures with Go-Pro type cameras and using them for security surveillence.
Although the main agricultural poisons being used are now banned from production, farmers and communities appear to be able to access an endless supply of stockpiled chemicals. The distribution of these chemicals is therefore incredible difficult to police and it is likely that we will run out of vultures before the stock of illegal chemicals is depleted.
The issue is that measures being used currently to protect vultures are reactive rather than pro-active. Education and awareness campaigns are crucial but cannot effect change on their own. In my opinion, we need to also come up with an approach that actively prevents birds from being killed.
With this in mind, does anyone have any ideas or suggestions as to any tech that can be used to deter vultures from consuming poisoned meat? Is there some sensor that can be developed to detect a chemical signature or cue if a vulture lands on a poisoned carcass? This could then trigger an alarm that scares the individual and others away before they consume anything? I was also thinking of ways to keep vultures from foraging in dentified poisoning "hot-spots", perhaps some sort of virtual barrier type sensor that can be triggered if the bird crosses into a danger zone, and would unsettle it and cause it to keep flying.
I realise it is a long-shot and that placing devices on a large number of birds is just not feasible but Ireally wanted to just open up a discussion to see if there are any ideas out there. So if anyone has any ideas please let me know!
29 December 2016 1:23pm
I'm so glad that you raised this issue, @Tarik+Bodasing .
For those unfamiliar with this problem, there's a helpful paper by Darcy Ogada here. See Table 2 on p9 for a list of the most abused pesticides in Africa that have been linked to deliberate wildlife poisonings. I've heard about poisonings using chlorinated hydrocarbons, organophosphates, strychnine, heavy metals, cyanide and other chemicals. Can you share more detail on the specific poisons that are being used in your region, Tarik?
My understanding is that the availability and access to regulated poisons is variable, depending on local conditions (for instance, there may be greater access to cyanide near mine sites). This would mean that chemical-based sensors for an early alert system would need to be developed for specific sites to detect the poison(s) that are most accessible in that region.
In my understanding, it should be feasible to develop a sensor to detect the presence/absence of cyanide in water. @Eric+Becker on our team at WWF may have insights from his discussions with a few chemical engineers.
In terms of poisoning methods, I'm aware of many cases in which water points and salt licks were intentionally laced, as well as poisoning of carcasses to intentionally target predators and scavengers. What other strategies are you aware of, Tarik?