The Kafue National Park in Zambia has endured a half a century of poaching and sadly lost three-quarters of its wild cats. With the help of scavengers, in particular vultures, they are managing to turn things around.
Across Africa, many leopard and lion populations have decreased but leopard numbers have tripled in Kafue National Park over the last four years. There are currently 200 lions in the Africa’s third-largest national park and cheetahs, other big cats and elephants are stabilising or increasing. The way the vultures help is by becoming research assistants for the scientists in the area. They are quickly captured without being anaesthetised and have satellite tags mounted onto them. The satellite tags send geo signals to the researchers which is a comparatively cheaper way of monitoring and protecting wildlife corridors.
Poisoning is a common threat for both lions and vultures and ninety percent of vultures die due to poisoning in Africa because they feed on carcasses that have been contaminated mainly with carbofuran or carbamate-based pesticides. The tags allow them to become early-warning systems which pinpoint locations of potential poisonings. The geotags send signals to monitoring teams on the ground, for example if a bird not moving, a fast response team of rangers can be sent to the site to investigate. They can save or rehabilitate many of the affected vultures in time, whereas lions can die very rapidly after ingesting poison. A poisoned carcass can kill a whole pride of lion and up to 70 vultures, according to the the nonprofit Panthera. They work together on the project with Corinne Kendall, who is the curator of conservation and research at the North Carolina Zoo.
The locals add poison to carcasses in order to prevent lions attacking their vulnerable livestock. Conflict resolution between the local communities is a very important part of the conservation of wildlife here. Six nonprofits in the area work together with Panthera on educating the communities and rewarding them with things like veterinary expertise, solar systems or protective structures for their livestock. Since then they haven’t had any incidents where big cats have been killed as retaliation attempts. Panthera also saves the cats by offering the local Lozi synthetic furs for use in their ceremonies so that they don’t hunt the wild cats for their fur.
Kendall hopes to expand the vulture program throughout Zambia but also into other countries across Eastern and Southern Africa with the long-term goal to reach full coverage.