'Heartbreaking' Vulture Poisoning in South Africa Raises Alarm
By Fred Kockott
Soon after releasing two rehabilitated vultures, rescued from a different poisoning scene earlier this year, WildLife ACT was alerted to another incident on Dec. 23, on Rolling Valley Ranch, located between Pongola and Mkuze in the far north of the province.
"Arriving at a scene like this with everything so fresh, but too late to assist in saving any poisoned birds is heartbreaking. Losing one vulture is always a tragedy. Losing at least 16 birds at one feeding is a crisis," said PJ Roberts, manager of Wildlife ACT's Emergency Response Team.
Wildlife ACT works closely with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, local farmers and communities, and other conservation groups to protect three endangered vulture species in KwaZulu-Natal.
The first bird found, a white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus), hinted at Roberts's worst fears: "It had a full crop (still containing undigested food), contorted feet and many dead flies were scattered around its remains — all clear signs of fast-acting poison."
The team swept the area, but it took an aerial search to locate more victims. "We landed to find the devastating remains of multiple birds hidden at the base of the tree. Included in this discovery was the removed, yellow, wing tags of H065; a young lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotos) tagged in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in October 2017 as a fledgling," said Roberts.
"No more than 30m away, the morbid discovery of 13 processed and harvested white-backed vultures, with their heads and feet removed, were found very purposefully hidden in a thick bush," added Roberts.
Wildlife ACT response team with the bodies of 13 white-backed vultures, poisoned for the traditional medicine trade. Wildlife ACT / Mongabay
Nearby was the body of an impala — snared, killed, and laced with poison. The rangers burned all the contaminated carcasses to ash to remove the poison from the ecosystem.
It is the fourth vulture poisoning incident in northern Zululand this year, bringing the total recorded number of vultures harvested for body parts in this region alone to 53. The actual number of birds killed is believed to be much higher as many incidents are never detected.
The Endangered WildLife Trust's (EWT) Vultures for Africa Programme manager, Andre Botha, said it was difficult to quantify how many vultures are deliberately poisoned for body parts.
According to records kept by EWT, more than 1,200 vultures have been deliberately poisoned in Southern and Eastern Africa this year. Culprits include poachers who poison the carcasses of elephant and other game in an apparent effort to conceal illegal activities from rangers. These poisonings are referred to as "sentinel poisonings", as vultures circling over poached animals alert rangers to the killings.
Africa's vulture populations have already declined by an average 62 percent over the past three decades — with seven species crashing by 80 percent. Experts recently warned that the continent's vulture populations face the prospect of collapsing, in much the same way as vulture species did in Asia thirty years ago.
In the early 1990s, millions of Asian vultures died after eating the remains of cows in carcass dumps; India has 500 million cows raised for milk, but not eaten by the majority Hindu population. Scientists identified the culprit: diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory used by vets. Vultures feeding on carcasses containing the drug died swiftly of kidney failure.
The reasons for the African vulture crisis are vastly different. They include habitat loss, ingestion of lead ammunition, collisions with power lines, accidental drownings in farm water reservoirs, and the use of poisoned bait by livestock owners to kill predators like jackals. Vultures feeding off the carcasses subsequently die, often in significant numbers.
But many more are poisoned deliberately to harvest body parts for belief-based use.
"The vultures are killed for their heads and feet and other parts," said Chris Kelly, a species director at Wildlife ACT. "This is definitely the single biggest threat to diminishing vulture populations in this province," said Kelly.
In many parts of Africa, vultures are believed to have psychic powers, including an ability to see into the future.
According to a fact sheet from EWT, the brains of the bird are dried, rolled and smoked as joints or simply burnt and the fumes inhaled. Users believe this improves their odds when they gamble on the lottery or place bets on sport. Students take it when preparing for exams. Other reported uses of vultures include consuming their eyes to improve eyesight, their beaks for protection, or their feet to heal fractured bones or make a person run faster.
In 2014, EWT estimated that 130,000 traders, hunters and traditional healers were operating in South Africa. This figure is believed to have increased, sparking calls from conservationists, environmental scientists and wildlife experts at this year's Conservation Symposium for an awareness-building campaign to reduce this consumption and demand for vulture parts.
Poisoned vulture: more than 1,200 vultures have been deliberately poisoned in Southern and Eastern Africa in 2019. Wildlife ACT / Mongabay
"Vultures provide critically important ecosystem services by cleaning up carcasses thus reducing the spread of dangerous diseases such as anthrax and rabies and resulting in highly significant economic and human health benefits," said Brent Coverdale, an animal scientist for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife at the symposium. "We really can't afford to lose them."
As vultures are protected by law, it is illegal to possess or kill any of the six vulture species found in South Africa. Nevertheless, deliberate killings continue.
Roberts said the latest poisoning incident had been reported to local police.
"We are hoping this leads to an arrest," said Roberts. "If the illegal harvest of these birds is not halted, then extinction may be just around the corner and the services that they provide within the ecosystem will be lost forever."
As part of a bid to save vulture populations, managers of conservation areas and private game reserves in South Africa are collaborating to create safe havens for existing vulture populations.
Fred Kockott is the founding director of Roving Reporters, a journalism training agency that focuses on environmental, social and justice issues.
Additional reporting by Mlu Mdletshe, Roving Reporters.
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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