At about 10:15 on 21 November 2013, whilst on routine patrol in the Masinda Section of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife field rangers came across the carcasses of 37 white-backed vultures. All were found in the immediate vicinity of a carcass of an elephant that died a month previously.
Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park, formerly Hluhluwe–Umfolozi Game Reserve, is the oldest proclaimed natural park in Africa. It consists of 960 km² (96,000 ha) of hilly topography 280 kilometres (170 mi) north of Durban in central Zululand, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and is known for its rich wildlife and conservation efforts. The park is the only state-run park in KwaZulu-Natal where all the big five game animals occur. Due to conservation efforts, the park now has the largest population of white rhino in the world
Indications are that the vultures had been poisoned. 29 of the vultures had their heads removed, a familiar sign of their use in the muthi trade. Of the 37 white-backed vultures, three were adult birds, nine were sub-adults and 17 were immature. The age of eight of the vultures could not be determined as they had already been scavenged. “This loss represents a significant number of young vultures which should have been recruited into the system and could have an effect on the future breeding potential of vultures in the Zululand area” said Dr Dave Druce, Park Ecologist for Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. The loss of adult birds during the breeding season means that additional juvenile birds may die on their nests.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is taking this event extremely seriously and has opened a case with SAPS. Vulture carcasses have been taken for toxicology analysis to determine the type of poison used and the Organised Crime Unit has investigated the scene. A helicopter has been used to search the area around the elephant carcass for other mortalities but no other carcasses have so far been found. Ezemvelo staff will continue to monitor the area to determine if other vultures or carnivores have been affected. The remains of the elephant and the vultures have now been burnt to ensure further deaths from scavenging from the poisoned elephant carcass do not occur.
All vulture species are declining and are recognised as priority species within KZN. Annual aerial surveys are conducted by Ezemvelo in the Zululand area to determine the trends and breeding success of tree-nesting vultures (white-backed, lappet-faced and white-headed vultures). The population of white-backed vultures at uMkhuze Game Reserve has declined by two thirds as a result of several poisoning incidents over the last few years. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park remains the last stronghold of vultures in Zululand; presently there are about 11 pairs of lappet-faced vultures, 5 pairs of white-headed vultures and 390 pairs of white-backed vultures remaining in the park. Poisoning remains the biggest threat to vultures in South Africa. In July 56 Cape Vultures were poisoned by a farmer in the Swartberg area using a poison called carbofuran.
A number of vultures are fitted with numbered yellow wing tags and this year, with the support of the Wildlife ACT Fund and the Endangered Wildlife Trust, numerous lappet-faced and white-headed vultures have been fitted with GPS tracking devices to monitor their movements, determine their range and to assist in identifying potential risks to them.