The dire need for government to recognize the problem of poison

Published in The East African-Nation Media 16-22 September 2017

It was in 2005 while researching for her doctorate on Mackinder’s Eagle Owls around Nyeri in Kenya’s central highlands that Darcy Ogada realized there was a problem at hand – that of poisoning.

“I was watching as owls were being poisoned,” she recalls. Farmers were painting sliced-open tomatoes, with carbofuran to kill mice and mousebirds. But they were also killing the Mackinder’s Eagle Owls because the owls were eating the poisoned mousebirds. Found mostly in the highlands, the owls do not have a wide distribution.

United Against Wildlife Poisoning Campaign

Vultures poisoned near the Masai Mara 7 July 2014. Photo E. Ole Reson
Vultures poisoned near the Masai Mara 7 July 2014. Photo E. Ole Reson

According to Ogada, now Assistant Director of Africa Programs for The Peregrine Fund and specializing in raptors, the local campaign, United Against Wildlife Poisoning is critical. It  is a joint effort between The Peregrine Fund, Nature Kenya, Mara Lions and BirdLife International.

The database – African Wildlife Poisoning – is part of it. Started by The Peregrine Fund and its South African collaborators, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, it is an effort to record poisoning cases using citizen scientists in order to better understand the drivers of wildlife poisoning.

It’s online and easy to use:

“There’s wildlife being poisoned everywhere,” continues Ogada. “It’s shocking. We’re trying to get people to know about the database and to use the records to deal with the situation.”

Efforts to tackle the poisoning problem go back to 2007, when Ogada and others raised the alarm over wildlife poisoning at the East African Natural History Society (Nature Kenya) bird committee meeting.

Lion poisoned in Zimbabwe. Photo by H. van der Westhuizen
Lion poisoned in Zimbabwe. Photo by H. van der Westhuizen

As a result, Martin Odino a young zoologist funded by the bird committee documented the poisoning of birds, crocodiles, dogs, lions and many other wildlife species, some of which were for human consumption. The ‘poison’, Furadan that is registered for use as a nematicide, a type of chemical pesticide to kill nematode pests like soil worms in farms, was instead being used to poison lions and other big cats by pastoral people on a revenge mission whenever their livestock was killed – or in cases like Bunyala – to harvest birds with ease for human consumption.

The use of Furadan – with the lethal carbofuran as the active ingredient – was rampant around rice schemes killing everything from snails to pigeons and storks.  Farm Machinery and Chemicals (FMC), the American manufacturer of Furadan, withdrew the sale of the agro-pesticide in Kenya in March 2009 and executed a buy-back programme in May 2009 of the stock after a conservationists’ fraternity outcry led by WildlifeDirect that Furadan had still not been banned in the country. The Pests Control Product Board (PCPB) in Kenya, slow to act, responded that the evidence provided did not warrant its ban.


Poisoned Abdim's Storks destined for the market in Bunyala. Photo M. Odino
Poisoned Abdim’s Storks destined for the market in Bunyala., western Kenya Photo M. Odino

Although poisoning has been going on for thousands of years – for suicide, murder, killing pests and wildlife, it’s worrying now because poison is being used to harvest food.

It’s easy for farmers or anyone to buy a number of lethal pesticides from agro-vets in Kenya. With no monitoring by the Kenyan regulators after approving pesticides for general use, it allows for their misuse – in cases like wildlife poisoning.

In the last five years, poachers across Africa have also intensified their use of poison to kill vultures by poisoning carcasses of elephants that were killed for their ivory tusks – vultures are a dead give-away to where a carcass is, their overhead circling increases the likelihood of poachers being apprehended.

Looking at the data on record so far, it shows nearly every group of wildlife being poisoned, in addition to livestock, dogs and even humans. “Water holes are also contaminated by poison,” states Ogada.

Poison and abuse of pesticides is a real cause for concern, now that it has entered the environment and is a public health issue. “The database will help justify our arguments about regulations for pesticides and give us a better understanding of what the motivation for poisoning is. It will help to stop wildlife poisoning.”

According to Ogada the database is only as strong as the records in it “because,” as she says “if there is nothing, no one is going to listen to you.”

Looking at the map of Africa with the current poisoning incidents, the most recorded are in southern Africa with none in northern Africa and some hotspots in eastern Africa – this reflects the dearth of reporting more than a lack of poisoning incidents.

“There are lots of different poisons being used but the worst are the carbamate pesticides,” explains Ogada. “They are easy to get, cheap and effective.”

A United Nations 2017 Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food reads: ‘Pesticides, which have been aggressively promoted, are a global human rights concern, and their use can have very detrimental consequences on the enjoyment of the right to food. Defined as any substance or mixture of substances of chemical and biological ingredients intended to repel, destroy or control any pest or regulate plant growth,  pesticides are responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year, 99 per cent of which occur in developing countries where health, safety and environmental regulations are weaker and less strictly applied.’

“I hope we can gather more information and use it effectively to approach governments and say we have a real problem and what are we going to do about it,” states Ogada.