When I called Bird Life Zimbabwe and was put through to their programmes officer Fadzai Matsvimbo, it was to talk about the little birds that are nesting under my roof tiles and seem to have established a home there. I needed to know what I could do to make them as comfortable as possible in order to see the success of my plan to have them become a permanent feature as I enjoy waking up to their “singing”. Matsvimbo, however, had a more urgent matter to discuss — that of vulture decimation.
Environment with Chipo Masara
Vultures are scavenging birds of prey and they have been a part of the African landscape since the beginning of time.
I was to learn that while the creatures may to some not be very appealing to look at, or to have nearby, vultures—six species, which are found in Zimbabwe (or at least were)—are very industrious birds that play a crucial role in the functioning of the ecosystem, cleaning out carcasses that may harbour diseases. Without them, the world would be left in a less pleasant state, and not just in terms of stinky rotting animal carcasses lying around.
The swift and vastly-travelled birds — which Matsvimbo said could be in neighbouring South Africa in the morning and in Zimbabwe in the evening of the same day — work hard to look for their food, which mostly comes in the form of decomposing carcasses of one kind of dead animal or the other. As they feed, the birds provide — for free — the unquestionably important role of ridding the environment of decomposing animals that, if left lying around, would bring with them infectious diseases such as rabies, cholera and anthrax, among others that would be costly to contain. The scavenging birds are especially of value in hot regions.
India in the 1990s had to learn the hard way just how big a part of the natural ecosystem the vultures are when the creatures declined dramatically as a result of death from residues of a veterinary drug called Diclofenac found in the cattle carcasses vultures fed on. Without the vultures — whose stomach acid is corrosive and allows them to safely digest even the most putrid of carcasses — there was a worrying rise in the number of carcasses left lying around, leading to the spread of the cholera and anthrax bacteria that proved taxing to contain. The Indian government was forced to take measures to conserve the remaining vultures. Matsvimbo believes Zimbabwe will most certainly face the same situation that was faced by India — unless timely interventions are put in place to save the remaining vultures.
According to Bird Life Zimbabwe, the rate at which vultures in the country are being decimated is not in sync with the slow rate at which they multiply. Vultures can only raise one chick in a year and do not multiply at a fast rate. The birds — which are said to be an endangered species protected under the Environmental Management Act — are edging towards extinction in the country, said the birds’ welfare organisation, revealing how the vultures are facing a number of dangers.
Owing to the encroachment by humans into areas that were previously reserved for birds and animals, vultures — together with the rest of the country’s wildlife — have fast been losing their habitat, making it difficult for them to find conducive areas for breeding, or to live in.
The newly-adopted method of poaching where the criminal syndicates make use of poison — mostly the deadly cyanide — to kill animals in a bid to evade detection, has led to the catastrophic death of not only the animals, but the multitudes of vultures that would feed on the poisoned carcasses as well. When elephants are poisoned and killed, as was the case in 2013 at Hwange National Park where over 300 elephants reportedly died after they ate from salt licks that had been laced with cyanide poison — an environmental crime of proportions that shocked the world — there was rarely any noteworthy mention of the number of vultures that also died after feeding on the poisoned carcasses. But per every poisoned carcass left lying around, hundreds of vultures will most certainly die after feeding on it. A case in point is that of the 94 white-beecked vultures that, according to Bird Life Zimbabwe, died in the south eastern low veld where Zimbabwe borders with Mozambique after feeding on the carcass of a single poisoned elephant.
But it is by far from spiritual beliefs that vultures are believed to be increasingly getting under serious threat. In a country where there has been an unprecedented rise in the level of belief in “spiritual eyes”, where people are forever seeking “prophesies” and where there is a wide belief that bad things do not just happen but that some individual somewhere would be behind it, spiritual rituals have become commonplace.
According to Bird Life Zimbabwe, because vultures are hardworking birds that travel at length until they locate their food, there is a misconception that the birds have some supernatural ability to “dream” of where to find a carcass. Thus, there is a growing belief that body parts of vultures can give people the ability to see even things that are hidden, making them the most sought after birds, especially among those that make a livelihood from hoodwinking people into thinking they are seers even when they are not, as well as with witch doctors.
Recent research has confirmed that the birds are increasingly being used in the traditional medicine industry as they are believed to provide clairvoyant powers, enhanced sight as well as the ability to increase intelligence. Some believe the vulture parts can help them get lucky and bring them business success, with the creatures also continually getting popular with those whose source of livelihood is betting and gambling.
Unfortunately, these uses of vultures are not sustainable as there is proving to be a poor vulture population replacement.
With nothing done to stop their drastic decimation, they look like they will indeed, as Bird Life Zimbabwe fear, become extinct—then their absence will start being felt. If the Zimbabwean government does not take the necessary steps to save the remaining vultures, the country will learn a little late, like India did, the important role the birds play.