UMD’s SESYNC Leads an International Collaboration to Save the African Vulture Population, with Implications for Human, Animal, and Environmental Health

Recent major poisoning event in Kenya sheds light on the many facets of the issues threatening wildlife conservation efforts in vultures and other species

An African vulture on his perch

Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg

April 19, 2019 Samantha Watters

Earlier this year, a major poisoning event took place in Maasai Mara, Kenya, leaving more than 20 vultures dead with many more struggling to recover. This may not sound consequential, but the African vulture population is already under serious threats and struggling to survive. Vultures serve as vital stewards of human, animal, and the environmental health by acting as nature’s garbage disposals and disinfectors, but they are disappearing not just in Africa, but globally. With the loss of these obligate scavengers, diseases like rabies that should no longer be a concern are re-emerging as threats. To address this major public health and conservation concern, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC, funded by the National Science Foundation through the University of Maryland) has convened an interdisciplinary group of scientists with the lofty goal of saving Africa’s vulture population.

“This work is vital; we could lose African vultures completely in just a few years,” says William Bowerman, chair of Environmental Science and Technology at UMD and a lead organizer for this effort. “Along with myself and three other faculty from the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, we have faculty from across UMD and Cornell University, Birdlife International, the Peregrine Fund, Endangered Wildlife Trust, and many others who are all here to solve this international problem collaboratively. We have issues of poisoning, but also lead and other contaminants, habitat loss, poaching and vulture trade for belief and medicinal use, and other factors that contribute to why the population is dying so quickly and why we need so many different experts.”

Among this team of experts is Eric Ole Reson, a former student of Bowerman’s, and first on the scene at the poisoning event in Kenya earlier this year. “That morning, I was just on patrol driving along one of the conservancies there, and without my binoculars I could see birds struggling to fly and falling down to the ground,” says Ole Reson. “I found 40 birds on the ground when I got there, about 15 dead, others all struggling. It was overwhelming to see.” However, Ole Reson was trained for just such an event.

Ole Reson works for the Peregrine Fund and the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association, and he had specifically sought training out for himself and his team from Andre Botha, Vultures for Africa program manager at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, also a major organizer of the SESYNC initiative. This training prepared Ole Reson to know what to do, and he immediately began calling local veterinarians and agencies to deploy help, while assisting many of the vultures onsite on his own. He moved as many as he could to the shade, dragging several under his car for protection. His efforts and expertise saved the lives of many vultures and minimized the impact of this poisoning event, which was ultimately caused by vultures feeding on a poisoned hyena carcass.

Ole Reson and his team have started what is called the Vulture Protectors in the Maasai Mara region of southern Kenya. “Our goal is to help people understand the role of vultures in the environment, and to be able to respond in case there is a poisoning incident. We also want to try to mitigate human-carnivore conflict. We see ourselves as wildlife bomb experts that deactivate bombs before they go off. One poisoning incident has the potential of eliminating several lions or other large animals and hundreds of vultures for example - that is a huge bomb.”

With so much community land, seventy percent of the wildlife in southern Kenya is outside of protected areas like the Kenyan Reserve and national parks. This means that pastoral communities like the Maasai people are interacting with wildlife regularly, and this can be difficult, especially when their livelihoods are on the line. But Ole Reson has been working on changing the culture of wildlife management where he grew up since the moment he started his education. “A healthy landscape is a landscape that is complete with all species,” explains Ole Reson. “Species like vultures are very important because you have all these different species on a constant migration pattern and dying in numbers. Without vultures, these dead animals spread disease and become a crisis. People are starting to see the benefits of conservation, but living with wildlife is not easy. Grounds and fields get trampled, or carnivores like lions and hyenas might come and kill livestock. There must be a benefit to conservation that is connected to livelihood and health, and once I was able to show that benefit, people have been very enthusiastic.”

What Ole Reson has done in southern Kenya, which holds two-thirds of all of the wildlife in Kenya, has been very influential in changing the way vultures are thought of and wildlife is perceived. “My phone is now a hotline for vultures. I’ve built this huge enthusiastic team of people who are interested in vultures, and people send me pictures and messages all the time for the vultures they see. Building that enthusiasm and passion for vultures is a big thing for me.”

This also works for enforcement of poisoning issues and even other crimes like poaching. “We have built our community network to help investigate and educate at the same time. Because of networks in the community, we get to know if someone has bought poison before they get to use it, and we can handle it before it is a problem and as one member of the community to another driving a noble cause. Outsiders wouldn’t get that information necessarily, but because people know we are one of them and there to help the community, they tell us what is going on.”

Ole Reson has also identified hotspots for poisoning to use his network to efficiently respond to events like this. “This is one of the best ways to handle not just poisoning but all wildlife crimes like poaching because now we know what is happening across the area and can just place a call to someone very close by to respond if we hear of a poisoning or wildlife issue about to take place.”

This work and ability to handle poisoning events doesn’t just impact vultures, however, because poisoning and poaching impacts all kinds of wildlife. In a recent SESYNC meeting, Dr. Munir Virani, director of global conservation strategy at the Peregrine Fund said, “The work that Eric and his team are doing on the ground is not just about saving vultures; it's about lions and elephants and all kinds of species, and having the support of all of the people involved is key.”

“I think now we have found the real way to manage a crisis,” says Ole Reson. “It’s not just about the vulture crisis, but any crisis worldwide would require an approach like what we are doing here now. We have these unique expertise and interdisciplinary strengths sitting there handling a problem independently, and now we realize that all of these strengths can be put together to help make a meaningful impact. I see SESYNC as a way to interface between these disciplines - diseases, anthropology, ecology. In Africa, we are almost talking about everything as a crisis, and I can see this as an example for all future collaborations. Other parts of Africa can benefit from the model we’ve built in Kenya, and from what others have done, we have benefited, so there is also that exchange of information across regions. We will be able to come out with a strong approach - mix things up and make a sweet cocktail to really make a change.”