Vultures are arguably nature’s most important scavengers, yet they are currently among the most threatened group of birds worldwide. The situation in Africa is catastrophic. In just fifty years, the populations of seven species of African vulture collectively declined by at least 80%, and the decline is continuing. The main cause of the decline is poisoning – retaliatory, poaching and for vulture body parts. In East Africa, poisoning is perpetrated in response to livestock depredation incidences largely by mammalian carnivores. The death toll from this illegal and pervasive practice cascades over entire ecosystems, killing not only the target carnivores but also scavengers, with vultures being a particularly common victim.
The goal of this project is to identify areas that represent hotspots of illegal poison use by pastoralists in southern Kenya, aiming to reduce vulture poisoning.
In addition we plan to place newly designed GPS transmitters on vultures and eagles – generally the first arrivals at any carcass in African savannas – to reveal the locations of poisoned carcasses in real time. With such data, we will be able to rapidly respond to and locate a poisoned carcass, so we can inform park personnel to head out to the carcass and eliminate the threat, thus preventing more birds from dying at the scene. For this project we will work on a Proof of Concept in 2019, equipping vultures and Tawny Eagles with a GPS and accelerometer sensor that transmit data in real-time via a LoRa network to a server. We will conduct experiments with captive birds, mimicking various types of behaviour indicative of poisoning, to develop an algorithm that automatically detects a poisoning incident via the response of the sentinel scavengers.