Vultures flock to the carcasses of illegally killed African wildlife, and conservation cops follow the flocks to track poachers. Like mobsters assassinating witnesses and informants, elephant and rhino poachers poison the carcasses of their quarry to kill vultures and thwart law enforcement efforts.

Recently approximately 600 vultures died after feeding on a poisoned elephant corpse in Namibia’s Bwabwata National Park, reported the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Most of the birds were African white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus), which is classified as endangered by the IUCN.

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To make matters worse, the vultures are in the middle of their breeding cycle. Many of the 600 dead vultures’ orphaned chicks will likely starve without both parent’s care.

“By poisoning carcasses, poachers hope to eradicate vultures from an area where they operate and thereby escape detection,” said Leo Niskanen of the IUCN in a press release. “The fact that incidents such as these can be linked to the rampant poaching of elephants in Africa is a serious concern. Similar incidents have been recorded in Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia in recent years”.

In West Africa, vulture populations have declined by 42 percent over the past 30 years. Rueppell’s vulture suffered the worst with a decline of 85 percent.

African vultures face chemical dangers besides poachers’ poisons. Agricultural product retailers in Africa now offer the veterinary drug, diclofenac, which contributed to massive vulture mortality in India, according to the World Organization for Animal Health.

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Diclofenac builds up in the bodies of vultures after they feed on dead cattle treated with the anti-inflamatory drug. Kidney failure may eventually kill the vultures after they accumulate enough of the drug.

In India, the loss of the vultures resulted in an explosion of the feral dog population and the rabies virus that the canines carry.

IMAGE: The African white-backed vulture, Gyps Africanus.(Tony Hisgett, Wikimedia Commons)