A routine scout by game rangers in Gonarezhou National Park, in south-eastern Zimbabwe, last May, revealed a gruesome scene.
Up to 94 vultures had died after feeding on an elephant carcass poisoned by poachers.
The birds found dead included the white-backed vultures, a critically-endangered species.
While the plight of elephants is now well known and documented, very few people in Zimbabwe are aware of the threats poachers pose to vultures, or just how important these birds are to the environment. Efforts to address this are underway.
But experts are worried about the growing carnage and fear that these birds face extinction, not only in Zimbabwe, but across southern Africa.
In recent years, hundreds of vultures have died after feeding on poisoned elephant carcasses in Zimbabwe.
In 2013, 200 vultures died in Hwange National Park.
Widespread poisoning could “wipe out the entire breeding population of vultures in Zimbabwe”, says Kerri Wolter, founder and manager of VulPro, a South African vulture conservation organization.
She warns that this would have serious consequences because vultures clear away carcasses and help to stop the spread of diseases like anthrax, rabies, cholera and tuberculosis.
“Without [vultures], the environment will crash,” Wolter said.
“They are a keystone species in that they help keep our environment in sync. We need our vultures to prevent the extinction of other species from disease epidemics and outbreaks”.
Fadzai Matsvimbo, a vulture expert working for BirdLife Zimbabwe, agrees.
She points out that in India, rabies increased when the vulture population crashed.
“[Vultures] provide critical ecological services, and these stem from the birds’ unique way of life,” she said.
Wolter added that, as vultures travel across southern Africa, poisoning in one place can affect birds throughout the region.
She stressed the need for on-the-ground conservation organizations with government support.
“We are in a position to stop power line collisions and electrocutions by making sure power lines are safe. We have the potential to curb and control poisoning, but only with government support,” she said.
The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) did not respond to requests for information on government activities to stop the killing of vultures.
However, Matsvimbo said BirdLife Zimbabwe was working on awareness-raising actions in partnership with relevant government departments — including the ZimParks — and non-governmental organizations.
Every year, BirdLife Zimbabwe celebrates International Vulture Awareness Day to raise awareness of the status of vultures.
Last year, it organized a public seminar on vultures at the Natural History Museum in the city of Bulawayo.
The organization has also been working with Painted Dog Conservation, ZimParks and communities close to Hwange National Park to increase awareness on vultures, as most people were not aware that they were endangered.
Among communities surrounding national parks, myths and legends about vultures are common.
Some people associate the birds with good luck, while others link them to witchcraft.
Others note that vultures indicate the presence of a dead animal, a fact that has led poachers to target the birds directly to avoid detection.
“I don’t know much about vultures, but these birds have been helping us to tell if one of our livestock has been killed by predators,” Stephen Chauke, of Malipati, a village on the outskirts of Gonarezhou National Park, said.
“The vultures fly around the dead animal and it will be easy for us to know where our livestock has been killed. And besides, the vulture eat dead animals and leave our environment clean”.
Another Malipati resident, Auspicious Ndhlovu, said while villagers marveled at the sight of vultures circling in the sky, they know a little about these birds.
“We have, however, been learning from the [ZimParks] authorities that the birds can tell us about poaching activities,” Ndhlovu said.
“If we see vultures circling, we know poachers could have killed an animal, particularly elephants. It’s sad the poachers are using poison to kill the elephants, which is also killing the vultures”.
Poisoning is just the latest in a series of threats to vulture populations, along with habitat loss and widespread use of a veterinary drug called diclofenac that is fatal to vultures.
Many vultures have died after consuming dead cattle, whose meat contains the drug.
Against this backdrop, Victoria Falls Safari Lodge in western Zimbabwe has come up with an innovative way of protecting vultures.
It has developed a “vulture restaurant”, providing leftover meat as safe food and attracting as many as 200 vultures at a time.
Visitors, who come to see the spectacle of these birds swooping down to feed, also learn about the threats vultures face and about their ecological importance.
The tourists are encouraged to make a donation towards vulture conservation and research.
And Marianne Betts, group public relations officer for Africa Albida Tourism, a company that runs Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, said the vulture supplementary feeding programme, like other “vulture restaurants” around the world, helps to conserve the birds.
“A major reason for vultures being endangered is that their food supply is under threat, for example, if they consume the carcass of an animal treated with a commonly used veterinary drug, they die, and the supplementary feeding programme provides them with a safe food source,” Betts said.
But unless the government can control poaching and poisoning, the future looks grim for Zimbabwe’s vultures.
Last month, Environment minister Oppah Muchinguri urged rangers to adopt a “new shoot-to-kill” policy against elephant poachers.
She called for tougher penalties and for educational programmes to raise public awareness of and the effects of poaching on ecosystem health.
“We need to all work together and not against each other for personal gain and egos,” Wolter, of VulPro, said.
“We need to speak the same language when it comes to vulture conservation and work in unity. We need to work on the ground, be multi-faceted and work with all aspects of conservation, which includes in-situ and ex-situ conservation”.
For Zimbabwe’s most threatened vulture species, time is running out.