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The Poisoning of Uganda

Malcolm Wilson

12 years ago I began monitoring birds at Kibimba (Tilda) Rice Scheme, near Busia on the Kenyan border. At dawn, the spectacle of literally thousands of Fulvous and White-faced Ducks would fill the sky from horizon to horizon as they made their way from feeding sites to roost during the day. Sadly this spectacle is a thing of the past as today you will be lucky to find flocks of more than 20 birds.

The main reason behind this catastrophic demise has been and is the irresponsible use by poachers of a deadly pesticide product called Carbofuran, trade name Furadan. Furadan is a product made in the USA by the company FMC for use in domestic food production in the USA where it has killed millions of birds and other wildlife in the US alone for decades. There are other types of Carbofuran containing products made by other companies on the Ugandan market today, namely: Furadan 5G, Furan 5G and Agro-furan 5GR. It is a widely used systemic and contact insecticide, acaricide and nematicide with a broad spectrum of activity against many agricultural pests.

Carbofuran has one of the highest acute toxicities to humans of any insecticide widely used on field crops (only aldicarb and parathion are more toxic). A quarter teaspoon (1 millilitre) can be fatal. Since its toxic effects are due to its activity as a cholinesterase inhibitor it is considered a neurotoxic pesticide. It is extremely lethal to birds. When in granular form, just a single grain can kill a bird.

Kenyan scientist Martin Odino has conducted studies in Bunyala rice scheme (just across the border) and filmed poachers placing rice grains laced with the pink coloured Furadan in areas of high waterfowl concentrations. Poachers then wait till birds have consumed the bait, which succumb very quickly, before collecting the poisoned birds for food.
Up to 50% of large flocks of waterfowl are killed in single sessions which amount to some 6000 birds per month. Intoxicated birds are tied down to act as decoys to lure in others. Snails are collected and laced with poison to attract Open-billed and Yellow-billed Storks. Furadan as a nematicide, (worm killer) means that non grain eating birds also succumb to Furadan such as wading birds when muddy areas are contaminated. In particular migratory bird species having flown from the Arctic Circle, some 17,000 kilometres to over winter in Uganda and Southern Africa, are starved, gorge themselves on the contaminated invertebrates.

We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in these reported cases as there are vast areas under rice cultivation within the Lake Victoria basin wetland system, which is perfect for rice growing, and all attract many thousands of resident and migratory birds where countless thousands succumb to this poisoning. During the times I have worked in Kibimba rice scheme, there were many occasions where I would collect poisoned waterfowl, abandoned without any attending poachers in the vicinity, which I would then take back to Kampala to treat. Many times I encountered locals with sacks of intoxicated birds.

One of the most serious problems which have occurred in Uganda include the poisoning of Lions and Hyena in Queen Elizabeth National Park by Basangora pastoralists who invaded and occupied large parts of the park in 2006 to graze their cattle. In retaliation over the inevitable predation of their stock, carcasses were laced with Carbofuran to target the Lions which returned to the carcass to feed, and are subsequently poisoned as a result.

In May 2010 six Lions belonging to a pride of eight died as a result of poisoning in the well known tourist area of Kasenyi. In March 2006 nine lions and two Hyenas were killed from Carbofuran poisoning near Lake Katwe along with other large mammals including Baboons and monkeys (Okot WCS 2009). Research projects carried out on lions in Uganda indicate that almost two males, and three females, are killed every year (Sewagudde, 2010). These are the confirmed cases, we know about, just how many other cases have occurred, we will never know. Poisoning has caused lion deaths in Lake Mburo National Park, Murchison Falls CA and probably many other areas.

Cattle predation by lions is an inevitable outcome in conflict zones such as this and as long as the authorities follow a passive management policy in national parks, the problem will be ongoing.

As a result the Lion population in QE is now the lowest it’s ever been and Hyenas have virtually disappeared from the Northern sector. If this continues, the bio-accumulation of the toxic substances used in poisoning lions and hyenas will affect wildlife health in its entirety and we could be looking at the extinction of Lions in Uganda in the not too distant future.
Tourism will be the first casualty, which is a huge contributor to the Ugandan economy and it is suffering, resulting in the huge loss of income to National parks, lodges, guides and many others in the industry.

It doesn’t just stop with the first consumer, once a creature has succumbed to poisoned bait and dies a slow and painful death somewhere in the bush, many other species then feed on the carcass. Vulture populations in particular are worst affected as whole flocks can be killed as in a case in Kenya when 187 vultures were killed at a single carcass (Thomsett. S pers obs). At current trends, vultures will become extinct in Africa in the next 10 to 20 years.
Fish Eagle, Tawny Eagle, Martial Eagle, Bateleur, Palm-nut Vulture and Marabou Stork, all eaters of carrion are extremely vulnerable to poisoning.

Scavengers such as Hyena, Jackal and even Leopard and lion will also scavenge. In Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe there are documented accounts of Buffalo, Rhino, Giraffe, Lions, and many more species having been found around contaminated water holes, specifically targeted to kill wildlife.

Other forms of poisoning occur when farmers deliberately lace meat to kill Jackal and Caracal for livestock control (goats, sheep) and inadvertently kill many other species in the process.

Not only is Carbofuran used terrestrially, but fishermen also use it to boost catches on Lakes Victoria, Edward and Albert, as well as the Nile, contaminating large areas where many struggle on the surface long after the fishermen have gone. These fish are then taken by many heron species; Fish Eagles, Shoebill, Osprey, Pelicans, cormorants, Otter, crocodiles and predatory fish, which all become contaminated. The fish are then sold knowingly in local markets to unknowing customers who consume the contaminated fish.

In 2008 there was lobbying in Kenya by conservationists that FMC withdraws Furadan from the East African (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) market in a buy-back plan, FMC claimed that they withdrew all the stock from the market in response and there was no Furadan sold in the region.
A recent news item indicated that fake Furadan products were for sale in Uganda making the buy-back plan very difficult (dated 1st March 2011).

Furadan was banned 3 years ago on May 15, 2009, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a final rule revoking all domestic and imported food tolerances for Carbofuran, and that rule went into effect at the end of 2009. Then on the 31st of May 2011 in Washington D.C, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition to reconsider the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ban on domestic food tolerances for Carbofuran. Great news for wildlife, in the US, but Carbofuran products are still available in many shops in Uganda as well as other poisons and there are other countries selling Carbofuran to Uganda such as India and China, so it is still available and always extremely hazardous when used on crops. There are some fake or counterfeit products which are now being sold and taken to Kenya as it is more available in Uganda and a cheaper option and equally as destructive. In Uganda, according to Agro Input Policy Brief (2010), it is estimated that counterfeit and fake agro chemicals account for about 10% to 15% of the national agro-chemicals in the market which are valued at USD 6 million per year.

The fact that it is extremely toxic to humans as well as wildlife is of concern, as uneducated people who are able to buy these kinds of products and use them do so at their peril. In first world countries, most Carbofuran is applied by commercial applicators using closed systems with engineered controls so there is no exposure to it in preparation. Even when using Carbofuran on crops, it is a highly dangerous practice for local farmers and any contact with it can be fatal.
When Carbofuran is used in and around rice schemes it enters the water system and can end up being consumed in this manner by the local community. Furadan is potentially lethal when handled without any kind of protection and eating contaminated birds ultimately results in fatality.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Inform FMC furadanfacts.info@fmc.com if you find Furadan, genuine Furadan has a red top and a hologram on the label. Tell farmers how dangerous it is as this will probably be the only way it will get banned in Uganda, through a public health awareness program.
If there are enough voices and signatures out there to form a petition, it may help make the Ugandan government aware and hopefully, eventually get Carbofuran banned from Uganda altogether and stop the catastrophic effect and carnage this deadly curse has in Uganda.

Further reading:
http://stopwildlifepoisoning.wildlifedirect.org/
An Assessment of Furadan in Uganda – Okot & Plumptre 2011.pdf
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03601230903472058

Acknowledgements:
Andy Plumptree and Edward Okot Omoya WCS
Paula Kahumba Wildlife Direct
Martin Odino Wildlife Direct
Munir Virani The Peregrine Fund

Author: Malcolm Wilson, Email: shoebill@mweb.co.za