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Poison Takes Toll On Africa's Lions

60 Minutes - Poisoned 12:44

This story was first published on March 29, 2009. It was updated on July 25, 2009.

We all grew up learning that the lion is the king of the jungle. And now that we're not little any more, we know just how vulnerable they are. In fact, when exposed to man's devices, lions are extremely fragile.

The latest weapon being used against them is poison. As 60 Minutes first reported last March, African herders whose livestock and livelihood are threatened by lions are killing them in the most effective and economical way they can.

And overwhelmingly, that is by using a cheap American chemical called Furadan. It is marketed as a pesticide, to be used for protecting crops. But it's bought by many to kill animals. And that's one reason why, conservationists say, Africa's lions are in trouble.

More Information: Living with Lions

Correspondent Bob Simon took a journey through the bush in Kenya to find out what's going on. We learned that 20 years ago, there were some 200,000 lions in Africa. Today, there are 30,000 and the numbers are going down all the time.

Lions are being poisoned at a staggering rate in Kenya, and there's little chance cubs outside the wildlife reserves there will make it to adulthood.

Dr. Laurence Frank, of the University of California Berkeley, told Simon he believes that poison, combined with other threats, will make the lion in Africa extinct.

Frank has been following lions for the last 30 years, looking for ways to keep them alive. While 60 Minutes was there, Alayne Cotterill, his colleague, needed to put a new collar on a lioness named Mara. She darted her and put her to sleep.

Cotterill and Frank had less than an hour to do their work before Mara would wake up. A sleeping lion is a deceptively gentle creature. Her coat, which looks exquisitely smooth, is actually quite rough to the touch.

Seeing Mara's claws retracting into soft, padded paws, you understand why she is such an efficient killer. But actually, she may be more afraid of us than we are of her.

"They're very unlikely to attack us," Cotterill explained. "There's been so many years of conflict with people in this area, it's almost hardwired into their systems to be terrified of people."

And with good reason: over the millennia, people have speared, shot and trapped lions. Today, the primary culprit appears to be poison.

"We know of 30-plus poisonings just in this area in the last five or six years. We have data on another 35 or 40 poisonings in our other study area, elsewhere in Kenya. But that's gotta be just the tiny tip of the iceberg," Dr. Frank told Simon.

Mara is part of a pride which lives on Claus Mortensen's ranch. Five years ago he found out just how devastating poison can be when he discovered that another of his prides had gone missing.

"After a few days, vultures were seen circling on our northern boundary there. And we went out and we found first one lion, then another, and then another," Mortensen remembered.

Seven lions in all had perished. The lions had been vomiting and there were no bullet wounds.

Mortensen said he was sure the lions had been poisoned and suspects that Furadan was responsible. It's one of the most toxic pesticides sold in Kenya, widely available and hard to detect because it dissipates quickly in poisoned animals. Lab tests, he says, ruled out any other poison.

So why would anyone want to poison these glorious creatures? The first thing you need to know is that 70 percent of the country's wildlife is found outside the protected game reserves, on Kenya's vast plains, where wild animals and cattle mingle. Lions are there too, and that's where the trouble begins. The lions attack and eat the cattle.

The area is inhabited by the Maasai people, who always had a way of dealing with that. The young men went out hunting lions with spears; it was a rite of passage. Antony Kasanga was one of them.

Asked what it means for a young Maasai man to kill a lion, Kasanga told Simon, "It makes you famous. You get the whole community to know you, because you killed a lion….If you had one girlfriend, you get 20 more."

It's more than just having 20 girlfriends: killing lions protects cattle, the very foundation of the Maasai's existence.

When a cow is killed by a lion, Kasanga said it's a disaster.

And Kasanga's job now is to avert that disaster and save the lion at the same time. He is a leading member of the Lion Guardians, a group of reformed Maasai warriors who keep track of collared lions and warn herders when the lions get too close to their cattle.

Last year, they were too late in reaching an old herder whose cow had been killed. The herder laced the carcass with poison, knowing the lions would return to finish their meal.

That night, Sengale and Birdie, two collared lions the Guardians knew well, feasted on it. If the carcass was poisoned with Furadan, they wouldn't have suspected it because Furadan has no taste and no smell. It didn't take long before the lions were found dead; Birdie was pregnant with five cubs.

Cows are a cash crop in Kenya. They put food on the table, and they send kids to school. Mengistu Sekeret and his friends all lost cows to lions. That turned them into lion killers.

Asked how one kills a lion, Sekeret told Simon, "In very silent way."

"What is the silent way?" Simon asked.

"Actually, we use the poison," Sekeret said, explaining that it is very effective.

One poisoned lion captured on camera could barely walk. Its nervous system was shutting down, so it was put down by vets from the Kenyan Wildlife Service who conducted an autopsy.

The official government chemist's analysis found Furadan in the lion's stomach. A subsequent report by the agency that regulates pesticides in Kenya did not mention that finding and claimed that Furadan was not connected.

When 60 Minutes asked Mengistu Sekeret and his friends about Furadan, they didn't recognize the name, but knew exactly what it looked like.

He told Simon they call it "the blue stuff" and that that is actually the common name.

Simon showed them a bottle of Furadan to make sure we were talking about the same thing.

"Oh wow, it's the one," one of the men replied, after seeing the purplish-blue chemical.

Sekeret and his friends wouldn't have any trouble finding Furadan: it can be bought in towns and villages all over Kenya in stores called "Agro-Vets," which sell agricultural products, including pesticides.

But when Simon tried buying Furadan with 60 Minutes cameras rolling, the shopkeepers told him they didn't have it in stock, so we decided to go undercover with a hidden camera.

When Simon walked into a shop - filmed with the hidden camera - he had no problem buying a bottle of Furadan for 120 shillings, or about $2.

There was actually plenty of Furadan on the shelves and we were surprised that the storekeeper didn't ask what we wanted it for. Asked if many people buy Furadan, the shopkeeper told Simon, "So many people buy Furadan."

But when asked what they use it for, the shopkeeper simply laughed.

It seemed clear from stores 60 Minutes visited that shopkeepers knew Furadan was not only used on crops. In fact, some stores which stocked Furadan were in areas where there wasn't a crop for miles.

In its granular form, Furadan is banned in Europe and the United Kingdom; it is severely restricted in the United States. Just a tiny amount from a $2 bottle is enough to kill an entire pride of lions.

Furadan, even when used as directed, is estimated to have wiped out millions of birds in the United States and poses unacceptable risks to human health. That's why the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of banning it.

But in Africa, Furadan is perfectly legal as a pesticide. However, when the granules are sprinkled on carcasses, any animal that feeds on them will die. And not just lions - hyenas, leopards, jackals, vultures and other birds die in droves.

"It's inexcusable to use Furadan for killing animals. It wasn't designed for the purpose. It's grossly irresponsible to use it in that way," said Dr. Richard Leakey, the doyen of conservationists in Africa, who has spent years fighting for the conservation of Kenya's wildlife.

"But you can understand why cattle farmers do use it," Simon remarked.

"I can understand why people rob banks. I mean, there are a lot of things I can understand," Leakey replied. "It's irresponsible to put on the market something that is so utterly dangerous to wildlife in a country where wildlife is so critical for our economic future."

Wildlife is in fact crucial for Kenya's economic future. Hundreds of thousands of tourists bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the country. But most Kenyans see very little of that, so there is little incentive to value the wildlife.

"The amount of tourism that's here is not sufficient to offset the cost of these people living with wildlife," said Tom Hill, an American philanthropist who wanted to make wildlife worth something to the people.

Hill and Richard Bonham, a Kenyan naturalist, recognized that time was running out.

"It just became very clear unless we stepped in and made some sort of intervention, we were gonna lose the lion," Bonham said.

So they began meeting Maasai to ask what it would take to stop killing lions. "The answer as they gave it to us is: if you would pay us back for our lost livestock once it's been killed by predators and we can replace it, then we would quit killing them," Hill said.

"That's what we're doing," Hill said. "They don't hate lions. They hate the economics of lions."

So Hill and Bonham set up a fund to compensate the Maasai for their livestock losses. Teams of monitors crisscross the countryside to inspect dead cattle and reimburse the owners if they don't poison the lions.

The program has achieved some success, but covers only a small area. Throughout the rest of Kenya the poisoning goes on.

Asked how one stops farmers from doing it, Leakey told Simon, "You stop farmers by using unregulated chemicals by not having the chemical on the market. You ban the product."

But the Kenyan government hasn't banned the product. The company that makes it, FMC, declined 60 Minutes' request for an interview but said in a written statement that Furadan is important to the sustainability of agriculture in Kenya. They said that the labels clearly illustrate its proper use and that they condemn the illegal use of their products to kill predatory wildlife.

But does it have to be a choice between cubs and corporations? There are other ways to protect cattle without using lethal chemicals. But for lion cubs to grow up to be the splendid creatures they can be, Furadan cannot be part of their future.

After our story aired, FMC announced it would recall Furadan from stores in Kenya and stop all sales in the neighboring countries of Uganda and Tanzania. But a random survey last month found that while Furadan was no longer on the shelves in Kenya, it was still available in Uganda and Tanzania, where lions are also disappearing.

Produced by Michael Gavshon and Drew Magratten

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