More than 500 endangered vultures died after eating three dead elephants whose carcasses were poisoned by poachers, the Botswana government said in a statement Thursday.
The 537 vultures and two tawny eagles were found dead in one of the country’s protected wildlife management areas (WMA) in the eastern Central District.
Among the animals killed were 468 white-backed vultures, 28 hooded vultures, 17 white-headed vultures, 14 lappet-faced vultures and 10 cape vultures.
All are classified as either endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.
“The poisoning was believed to have been caused by lacing of three poached elephant carcasses with a poisonous chemical which (leads) to significant mortality in vultures and eagles,” the government statement on social media said.
The scavengers have posed a long-standing problem for illegal poachers, making the birds particularly vulnerable to poisoning, according to the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).
“As the birds flock to animal carcasses, they also give away sites of poachers’ activities,” the foundation said on its website.
Though problematic for poachers, the endangered birds are vital to a healthy, functioning ecosystem, according to the AWF. By feeding on decaying animal corpses, vultures play a critical role in keeping the environment clean and minimizing the spread of contagious diseases.
The Botswana government recently sparked controversy by moving to lift a ban on elephant hunting, after saying it was concerned by a small number of deaths and destruction of property linked to elephants.
In their statement Thursday, officials denounced the deliberate poisoning of animals by poachers as “dangerous and harmful to the environment.”
In the wake of the incident, law enforcement are reportedly “working around the clock to decontaminate the area” while tests of the carcasses and surrounding environment will be analyzed in a laboratory.
The mass poisoning wasn’t an isolated incident. In 2013, more than 500 birds, including vultures, were killed after eating from poison-laced elephant carcasses in Namibia, according to local media.