Vulture Biologist works to counter poisoning of endangered scavengers and tackle human-wildlife conflict

Vulture Biologist works to counter poisoning of endangered scavengers and tackle human-wildlife conflict

A raptor biologist devoted to conserving one of the most threatened groups of birds on the planet was yesterday (Wednesday 25 April) presented with a prestigious Whitley Award by HRH The Princess Royal.

Munir Virani, Vice President at The Peregrine Fund is working to preserve Kenya’s endangered vultures in Africa’s Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.

Munir swapped a promising cricketing career for a lifetime commitment to conservation. He first began his project in 2003 following the Asian Vulture Crisis which saw 40 million vultures poisoned across South Asia, as a result of a now banned painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug used in cattle.

The Masai Mara is home to abundant wildlife, with vast grassland plains, spanning over 200 sq miles. Each year the Mara welcomes 1.3 million Wildebeest that migrate from the Serengeti and mass together on the banks of the River Mara.

The area is home to various tribal groups and Munir works closely with the Masai people who have tremendous respect for vultures and use their feathers for head gear or arrows.

Referred to locally as “Serengeti soap,” these scavengers are vital to the health and hygiene of the plains and swiftly consume rotting carcasses, preventing the spread of disease.

Vultures are collateral damage in the war between livestock herders and predators.  In retaliation for the loss of livestock to big cats, farmers resort to poisoning carcasses in the hope of reducing predator numbers. The subsequent incidental killing of vultures is catastrophic, with numbers falling by over 70% in the past 30 years.

Munir’s Whitley Award will expand his successful anti-poisoning programme – which saw cases drop in the Masai Mara by nearly 50% in 2016 – to Kenya’s Southern Rift Valley. He will work with pastoralists and NGOs to reduce livestock predation using predator deterrents and fortified livestock enclosures. Thirty conservation leaders will be trained to champion the cause in their communities and to respond to incidents, while GPS tagging will monitor vultures and target future conservation interventions.

Edward Whitley, Founder of the Whitley Fund for Nature, said: “Munir truly is a voice for these overlooked scavenger birds. His work with communities will allow vultures to thrive in this dynamic ecosystem and counter human-wildlife conflict. We are especially pleased to be working with Munir during our 25th anniversary year and look forward to following him on his journey.”

Munir said: “Vultures are often associated as the ‘ugly betty’ of the world, yet they are a vital part of our ecosystem and prevent the spread of deadly disease. Supporting the Masai people to become the next generation of conservationists has been especially rewarding. Our project will continue to develop practical solutions on the ground, develop champions and tackle a landscape level threat that is unprecedented for any other species.”

An annual event, often referred to as the ‘Green Oscars’, the 2018 Whitley Awards, are part of Whitley Fund for Nature’s 25th Anniversary celebrations.

The winners will each receive £40,000 in funding to support their work to conserve some of the planet’s most endangered species and spectacular places.

This year’s Whitley Gold Award honours Pablo (Popi) Borboroglu, who is spearheading a campaign to protect endangered penguins across the globe. Pablo has already achieved dramatic conservation success, helping to protect more than 3.1 million hectares of marine and coastal habitats. The Gold Award, worth £60,000, will enable Pablo to justify ocean protection and underpin management for different species of penguins across Argentina, Chile and New Zealand.

The 2018 Whitley Award winners are:

Dominique Bikaba – DRC

Ensuring the survival of DRC’s eastern lowland gorillas

Receiving the Whitley Award donated by Arcus Foundation

Kerstin Forsberg – Peru 

Majestic giants: safe passage for manta rays in Peru

Receiving the Whitley Award donated by The Corcoran Foundation 

Olivier Nsengimana – Rwanda

Conserving Rwanda’s emblematic grey crowned crane

Receiving the Whitley Award donated  by The Savitri Waney Charitable Trust 

Shahriar Caesar Rahman – Bangladesh

Tortoises in trouble: Community conservation of Asia’s largest tortoise

Receiving the Whitley Award donated by The William Brake Charitable Trust in memory of William Brake

Munir Virani – Kenya

Game of poisons: a strategy to save Kenya’s threatened vultures

Receiving the Whitley Award donated by WWF-UK 

Anjali Chandraraj Watson – Sri Lanka

Leopards as a flagship for wildlife corridors

Receiving the Whitley Award donated by Garfield Weston Foundation

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