Vultures help monitor poachers at Zambian park

STORY: Lion and leopard populations in Zambia's Kafue National Park are showing signs of a modest comeback following decades of poaching...

They've been helped by expanded protection strategies, and some innovative approaches.

Like tagging these vultures with satellite trackers so wildlife managers are quickly alerted about poached or poisoned carcasses... helping to save both the birds and the big cats.

In many parts of Africa, livestock owners will poison cow carcasses with deadly agricultural pesticides to kill the cats that come to feast.... a retribution for lions eating their cattle.

But the carcasses also attract critically endangered white-backed and hooded vultures.

Kim Young-Overton is the director of Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area program at Panthera, a global conservation organization.

"If there is poisoning events that are happening, then by using the vultures, we can really get a head start on where those poisoning events may be occurring. And so it's really good to have the vulture program in place already within the park to really help us understand and get ahead of the game if there are poisoning events."

Since 2021, the zoo team has tagged 19 vultures in Zambia, draping tiny backpacks containing the satellite tags over their wings.

Their population has declined by more than 90% across West Africa in the past 40 years, largely due to poisoning.

Corinne Kendall, the program lead, is from the North Carolina Zoo.

"Both white-backed and hooded vultures are critically endangered species, so they're actually more endangered than lions. // We're really concerned about both species because they play such a critical role in terms of disease control and waste removal. So the loss of vultures should be just as big a concern to us as the loss of more charismatic animals like lions."

The tagged vultures have led conservationists to two suspected poisoning incidents near the park.

That's according to a new report shared exclusively with Reuters.

In such incidents, park staff can dispose of the carcass and try to track down the perpetrator.

Big cat densities across Kafue remained stable and in some cases increased from 2018 to 2022 after decades of poaching, according to the report.

The deployment of some 40 anti-poaching patrol teams has helped.

(Kim Young-Overton)

"What we do know is what interventions have been, and how those and the outcomes from those interventions are quite consistent with the thinking that leopard numbers do seem to have increased post the replacement or demand reduction interventions that we've put in place to reduce direct targeted poaching of leopards. And that lion numbers do seem to have responded to the law enforcement institute territorial patrolling and the intensive protection zones."