Pesticide poisoning may be the greatest threat to wildlife in Kenya

According to Kenyan law, it is a serious offense to misuse or abuse pesticides in this country and the Pest Control Products Board is meant to regulate the safe use of pesticides for food production. Through my organization WildlifeDirect, I have been calling for a total ban on the deadly carbofuran pesticide locally known by its trade name Furadan in Kenya since 2009 because it is devastating wildlife in the country.  Carbofuran is intended to kill agricultural insect pests and is a neurotoxin that paralyses its victims. WildlifeDirect has documented the misuse and abuse of this chemical which may now be the most serious threat facing wildlife conservation in Kenya today.

To raise awareness, and get government help, we called a national workshop to address the issue of pesticide poisoning of wildlife in April 2008.  It wasn’t until late 2009 that a Task Force under the Ministry of Agriculture was created to address the issue of pesticide impacts on the environment. The Task Force chaired by the Pest Control Board however, has achieved nothing tangible, and the agency has refused to acknowledge a single poisoning incident report submitted by WildlifeDirect. The PCPB has not called a meeting since September 2010 or explained why they have not done so.

Wildlife Direct scientists have been consistently reporting that Furadan has been used to poison lions due to human wildlife conflict, and it is considered to be one of the main causes of the decline of population of lions in Kenya – now reduced to fewer than 2,000 individual animals. The pesticide is sprinked onto carcasss of livestock to kill lions which cannot detect its presence as it has no smell or taste. Any animal that scavenges on a laced carcass will die within minutes and that includes jackals, hyena’s and vultures. Go to the national parks and you will hardly see a vulture anymore. Vultures populations have declined nationwide  by between 50 and 80% due to pesticide poisoning targeting lions.

We have also been reporting the large scale bird poisoning came in Mwea (central-eastern Kenya) where tens of thousands of birds were killed by the lethal poison in the mid 1990s. Farmers were reported to be eliminating the birds to prevent damage to crops. Researcher Martin Odino of WildlifeDirect documents the use of Furadan to poison wading birds in Bunyala (western Kenya) where poachers poison tens of thousands of wild ducks, geese, storks, doves and other birds using Furadan-laced bait every year. The White faced Whistling duck has disappeared from the area completely. WildlifeDirect has documented in photographs and film, how birds are killed and sold for food to local people in markets. The PCPB has refused to acknowledge or investigate these reports despite the serious public health risk.

Though produced in USA by an American firm FMC, Furadan is not permitted for use in the country after the Environmental Protection Agency declared it unsafe for users, consumers and the environment in December 2009. After the airing a shocking documentary showing the poisoning of lions in Kenya in 2009 on CBS 60 minutes, FMC announced a complete withdrawal and buyback of the pesticide in all East Africa where they admitted it was being misused.

According to their website, “FMC Corporation has repurchased Furadan 5G from distributors and retailers in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.  The buy-back program remains open for any product that might still be in commercial channels.  Should any additional product be found in the marketplace, please let FMC know the location details so it can be repurchased.  FMC has no plans to reintroduce the product in these countries in the future”.

The poison was removed only from Kenyan stores, and it was simply moved to Tanzania and Uganda. From there it has been coming back across the border and continues to be found in some Agrovet outlets. Despite the global concerns concerns about the dangers of Furadan, the PCPB continues to permit its use of Furadan in flower farming. It is supplied locally by Juanco Ltd and is advertised on their website.

WildlifeDirect has consistently argued that the pesticide management system in Kenya needs to be revised. Deadly pesticides like Furadan should not be sold over the counter as users are not trained in safe use, and do not have or use any safety gear. Moreover, when poisoning incidents do occur,  rural clinics cannot handle them. In 2009, the Standard newspaper and WildlifeDirect reported that Nelson Kimutai, a three-year old boy from Kitale in Kenya, had died after consuming Furadan that his father had bought to rid his maize farm of rats and insects. He had stored the product in the kitchen and was using it with his bare hands. His son did not associate the chemical with danger and ate a little. Four hours later the local clinic was unable to save his life as they did not know how to reverse the effects of the pesticide.

In her best selling book “Silent Spring” Rachel Carson describes how the poisoning of the earth with DDT and other organophosphates in the USA threatened the lives of people and nature. She accused the agrochemical industry of being untruthful, and raised concern that public officials were failing to protect the public and environment by accepting industry claims uncritically.  The awareness that this book raised led to the banning of DDT in 1972. America has never looked back. Kenya is now experiencing her silent spring and it is time that the public questioned the governments decisions on which chemicals are used in food production. To date Kenya has no standards for pesticide limits in food, and conducts no testing of consumer products in shops. While the medical fraternity express concern about a cancer epidemic, nobody is examining the possible causes.

Given the obvious risks associated with the use and misuse of agrochemicals in Kenya it seems clear that our regulations and capacity to enforce the law are inadequate.   The PCPB its self is compromised by the fact that it is located in the Ministry of Agriculture therefore it cannot be an industry watchdog looking out for the interests of human and environmental health. Moreover, the PCPB is severely under resourced with only 9 inspectors and 2 vehicles nationwide. There are over 9,000 agrovets in the nation. This puts the tiny agency at the mercy of powerful agro chemical industry players who promise to “self regulate”. According to their annual reports, the PCPB’s meagre income is obtained almost entirely from the sale of agrochemicals. No wonder they are allergic to any suggestion of pesticide product bans.

We urge the government of Kenya to urgently address the human health and environmental risks by banning the use of carbofuran and removing the PCPB from the ministry of Agriculture where it is in a position of conflict of interest, and provide adequate resources to enable the PCPB to be effective.

Dr. Paula Kahumbu has a PhD from Princeton University and is the Executive Director of WildlifeDirect.c

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3 comments on “Pesticide poisoning may be the greatest threat to wildlife in Kenya

  1. Pingback: Paula Kahumbu wins 2011 National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in African Conservation – Baraza

  2. Alexis on said:

    Is there an active petition anywhere calling on FMC (whose major shareholders include the likes of Fidelity and State Street) to STOP selling Furadan in Tanzania and Uganda?

  3. Pingback: CordaWhatta in my Tutta? «

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