After a brush with death, poisoned Zim vultures back to flesh-pecking selves

A group of critically-endangered white-backed vultures were nursed back to health after being poisoned in Zimbabwe.

Craig Mirams with a rescued white-backed vultures. Picture: Supplied

HARARE - Four men carry vultures out into the sunshine.

They grip the birds to their chests, holding their heads and feet firmly to keep the formidable beaks and talons in check.

The birds, around the size of turkeys, wriggle their long downy necks and glare at their handlers through fierce brown eyes.

Craig Mirams and Josh Stafford holding the vultures' talons in check. Picture: Supplied

Three of the men bear wounds on their arms and hands caused by the birds’ bills, which resemble bolt cutters.

Just one week earlier these white-backed vultures were at death’s door, the victims of an accidental poisoning on a farm south of Harare.

Late on 13 January Josh Stafford and Craig Mirams of Kuimba Shiri bird sanctuary near Harare got an urgent call to rescue the survivors.

They managed to rescue 10 alive on the first night, and nine the next day. They rushed them to a vet in Harare where the birds were treated with atropine and activated charcoal to reverse the effects of poisoning.

Tragically, around 50 vultures died at the site of the poisoning, a blow to a species deemed critically-endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Kuimba Shiri, the sanctuary where 15 of the survivors were taken to after being discharged from the vet, is a small idyll set among towering musasa trees beside the deep blue waters of Lake Chivero.

Stafford's family have run the sanctuary for more than 20 years.

A recovering white-backed vulture proves to be quite a handful. Picture: Supplied

Many of the birds here are rescued and injured birds of prey. Some cannot return to the wild.

Others have been released but have returned to the sanctuary, like the fish eagle that went away and returned with a mate to nest within the sanctuary grounds.

Returning poisoned vultures to the wild can be a slow and costly business, Stafford said.

“The toxins get stored in the fat of the birds,” he explained. “If you release them too soon, the birds start to absorb their fat stores, and the toxins they still contain, and then they’ll die in the bush.”

This latest poisoning was accidental, and on private property, but all too often vulture poisonings across the region are intentional.

Poachers sometimes kill vultures in game parks so that they don’t alert game rangers to their presence.

Zimbabwe’s national parks authority is stepping up its blitz against poachers. Last year it shot dead nine poachers during armed contacts and arrested more than 280 others, according to official figures released in January.