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Secondary Poisoning and Persecution - A Masai Perspective
Munir Virani — in East Africa Project    Share

Editor's note: The following article is from Rebecca Johnson and Gus Keys, volunteers working in the Masai Mara as part of our East Africa Project

The poisoning of raptors is an issue we’re sadly familiar with coming from Scotland, but the situation in Kenya’s Masai Mara is very different. On the shooting estates of the Scottish uplands, raptors are deliberately targeted for the perceived effect they have on game bird numbers. In the Mara, vultures, eagles and other avian scavengers are the innocent victims of poisoning aimed at mammalian predators such as lions, leopards and hyenas.

Persecution of mammalian predators in the Mara is on the increase as people seek revenge for attacks on their livestock. Carcasses laced with the toxic pesticide Furadan, which are intended to kill predators such as lions, are also killing vultures through secondary poisoning. Vultures are often the first scavengers to locate and feed on dead livestock and wild animals, and recent research by The Peregrine Fund and other organizations has shown that secondary poisoning is driving recent declines in vulture numbers in the Mara, where numbers have decreased by up to 60% since the 1980s.

Alongside our two weeks of fieldwork on the effects of disturbance from settlement on avian scavengers, we took time to interview local Masai livestock farmers around a small village in Siana District on the edge of the National Reserve. Dr Munir Virani of The Peregrine Fund was keen to find out more about local attitudes to predators and poisoning in the area, which has been the location of several recent poisoning incidents resulting in the death of many vultures.

We asked people a series of questions about the losses they were experiencing from predators, their feeling towards them, and their thoughts on the secondary poisoning of vultures.

Most people interviewed reported that their ‘boma’ (Masai homestead) had been broken into by predators between two and five times in the past year. Hyenas were more likely to kill a greater number of animals, we were told, but big cats were more likely to take cattle, which are highly prized in Masai culture because the number of cattle a man owns represents his wealth. In fact, for a Masai man to marry, he must pay a sizeable dowry of cattle to his new wife’s family, so they are an integral part of local culture.

Feelings towards lions and leopards were mixed. Some people, although obviously unhappy about losing animals to big cats, conveyed a certain amount of respect for these animals. Many people told us that lions will only break into a boma if they are desperate for food, or perhaps very old and unable to hunt wild animals any more. This degree of respect was not mirrored when it came to hyenas, however, which received very negative comments from every interviewee because of the number of livestock they can kill during a break-in.

Next we tackled the thorny issue of poisoning. We asked whether someone was right to put out a poisoned carcass to kill predators. Most people said no, but a couple said sometimes, yes, which is perhaps a more honest answer given the number of poisoning incidents in this area. One interviewee put it well when he said, “Goats, sheep and cows are a Masai’s wealth. When people lose animals to predators they get no compensation, and because money from the Reserve does not come here to Siana, local people are not benefiting from these predators.”

The recently formed Siana Conservancy, where tourists pay to visit the area with money channeled back into the local community, should help to allow local people to benefit financially from the wildlife in their area. It was heartening that many interviewees recognized the importance of wildlife as a source of income through ecotourism. One local chief told us, “the future of this area depends on predators because they attract tourists, which provides employment for young people.” Also initiatives such as Wildland Conservation’s ‘Predator Aware’ project are working with local Masai communities to help protect large predators through education, anti-poaching patrols, and building predator-proof livestock enclosures.

Finally we asked how people felt about vultures dying through secondary poisoning and the universal response was that this is wrong because vultures are “innocent”, and play an important role in cleaning up the ecosystem. A vulture awareness day in October 2010, organized by The Peregrine Fund and the Raptor Working Group of Kenya, has played a pivotal role in educating local people on the importance of vultures and other scavengers in preventing disease and helping to recycle nutrients.

It was fascinating to get an insight into Masai views on the animals they share their land with, in this, one of the most famous wildlife areas in the world. There is obviously no simple solution to the problem of secondary poisoning of vultures, but hopefully continued awareness raising and local initiatives will help to reduce human-wildlife conflict, and result in an about-turn in the fortunes of the Masai Mara’s vultures.

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