Rice irrigation schemes around Lake Victoria region and in other rice-producing areas of Kenya are leading to the mass poisoning of endangered bird species and threatening human health in the process. Lake Victoria's wetland system hosts vast areas under rice cultivation. Tens of thousands of resident and migrant bird species are attracted to these rice plantations annually. Illegal hunters have taken advantage of this and are poisoning tens of thousands of birds using rice laced with the deadly pesticide Carbofuran.
Kenyan conservationist Martin Odino has conducted studies in Bunyala Rice Scheme, the most westerly of the rice plantations. In Bunyala during the rainy season, which is also the time for planting, water floods the fields and attracts a variety of wetland birds. Odino has filmed poachers placing rice grains laced with the pink-coloured Furadan in areas where these waterfowls congregate. Poachers then wait till the birds have consumed the bait, and they succumb very quickly, before collecting the poisoned birds for food.
Up to 50 per cent of large flocks of waterfowl are killed in single sessions which amount to some 6,000 birds per month. "Bushmeat is more often associated with mammals," says Odino. "Birds are overlooked as a lesser tourist attraction. Yet many of these are important indicator species of the state of the environment."
Odino has also documented Carbofuran poisoning of thousands of wetland birds in Ahero, a rural community in south-western Kenya and Mwea rice schemes - the latter produces 80 per cent of the country's rice output. The poacher's technique here is that snails are laced with Carbofuran granules. The bait is then left in the fields where it's consumed by a variety of birds including wild ducks, open-billed and yellow-billed storks, egrets and snipes. After eating the poisoned snail, the larger birds are clubbed to death and the contaminated meat is then sold in local markets.
Odino has identified 33 bird species that are at risk of Carbofuran poisoning. Out of this figure, nine species are migrants. Three out of ten migrant birds die due to intoxication. Some of the migrant bird species have flown from as far away as Northern Europe and Asia to spend the winter months in the southern hemisphere. These migrant species include the common greenshank, black-winged stilt, ringed plover and curlew sandpiper. On their stopovers in Kenya rice fields, these creatures unwittingly feed on Carbofuran-contaminated invertebrates like snails. But local bird species such as the fish eagle, bateleur, twany eagle, and palm nut vulture - all consumers of carrion- are also extremely vulnerable to pesticide poisoning.
One particular bird species that might have a directly beneficial role to humans but which is a favourite target for Carbofuran poisoning is the African open-billed stork. This bird is a specialist snail feeder which might have a role in controlling the spread of bilharzia by feeding on the water snail that carries the bilharzia parasite.
Carbofuran or Furadan is a highly toxic insecticide and one of the most deadly chemicals used anywhere in the world. It's manufactured by the US-based company FMC and it became a popular pesticide following the global ban on DDT. Carbofuran kills insects, mites and nematodes on contact or after ingestion. It has been used globally for control of pests in sugarcane, maize, rice, coffee, sugar beet and it's also recommended for Irish potatoes, beans, onions, bananas, peas and tobacco among other crops.
Carbofuran, however, has a more sinister side when it falls into the wrong hands. During the 1980s, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that more than one million birds were poisoned annually by the granular formulation of Carbofuran, which looks like seeds to the birds. By 1994, the EPA initiated a ban on all granular formulations of Carbofuran, which was established to protect wild birds in America. In 2009 the EPA initiated a total ban on all forms of Carbofuran.
Today the use of Carbofuran in western countries generally is under tight control. Residues of Carbofuran are not permitted on food in the US, including imported food crops. The pesticide is not permitted for use in the EU, which regularly tests for pesticide residues. In 2008 Kenyan conservationists lobbied for FMC to withdraw the pesticide from the East African market. FMC complied and agreed to stop distributing their product in the East Africa region. Later the company initiated a buy-back programme in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
In spite of these measures and the fact that Carbofuran is registered for "restricted use" is still not officially banned. In Kenya, Furadan 5G (liquid and granular formulations) is sold over-the -counter in some local agrovet stores in 200gm containers for around Sh100. Vendors of old stock of Carbofuran sell it to poachers at exorbitant prices.
A recent study in Kenya reveals that even where Carbofuran has been used for agriculture according to labelled instructions, its key metabolites, 3-hydroxycarbofuran and 3-ketocarbofuran, have reached dangerous levels in soil and groundwater. For example, a 2010 study in Laikipia discovered soil and groundwater contamination of Carbofuran as high as 1.823 mg/1, several times higher than the WHO recommendations of 20 micrograms per litre of water.
In 2010 Dr Richard Leakey made an impassioned plea to the Kenya government about the dangers of Carbofuran to the country's lucrative ecotourism sector: "The future of tourism in Kenya is at risk if dangerous pesticides like Carbofuran (Furadan 5G in Kenya) remain on the market," Leakey warned. "Time and again, we've seen these substances used to slaughter our national heritage and destroy one of our greatest economic assets yet the authorities continually fail to follow up cases of abuse and prosecute the culprits. The Kenya government must show that it is serious and take swift action to ban deadly pesticides like Furadan and enforce the law."
But few officials in the ruling PNU/ODM coalition government are speaking out about the dangers of Carbofuran to the country's wildlife and environment. Wildlife minister Noah Wekesa is one of the few politicians to have raised concerns. "Our major concern is that the number of reports of Furadan associated wildlife deaths in Kenya are on the increase," says Wekesa. One measure that conservationists would like to see the Kenya government implement are the provisions in the Pest Control Products Act of 1985 that allows for suspending and revoking certificates of registration while considering a total ban on Carbofuran-based pesticides.
Kenya's agricultural and horticultural export industry could be severely affected by large quantities of Carbofuran in the environment. Dangerous concentrations of Carbofuran and its metabolites have been found in soil, ground water but also on some crops grown for export. In the UK's Pesticide Residues Monitoring First Quarter report for 2009, three samples of green beans imported from Kenya contained residues of pesticides above the Maximum Permitted Residue Level.
Carbofuran is not permitted in major export nations. "The growing us of pesticides in Kenya may have benefits in terms of horticultural production levels," says the 2011 Wildlife Direct report 'Evidence for revoking registration of Carbofuran in Kenya', "but it could have negative consequences for sensitive export markets like the EU."
But it's not only wetland bird species that have fallen victim to Carbofuran poisoning. Kenya's rapidly growing bird watching sector of its vibrant tourism industry is also being robbed by the noticeable disappearance of raptors or birds of prey. For example, Kenyan environmentalists say their country's vulture population is in rapid decline in places like Maasai Mara, Tsavo and Amboseli due to unintentional poisoning with Carbofuran.
Then there is the human health factor. Carbofuran poisoning is said to cause irreversible neurological damage. The WHO estimates that annually three million people suffer from severe pesticide poisoning episodes globally. Of these, at least 300,000 die. An estimated 99 per cent of these victims come from low and middle income countries. In Kenya Carbofuran exposure has resulted in illness and deaths. According to a 2003 Icipe report which revealed that 21 per cent of French bean farmers in Kenya reported having visited clinics for treatment for illnesses related to pesticide usage.
The risk to human health is increased by the fact that Carbofuran is also being misused for fishing in Lake Victoria. Fishermen use the pesticide to enhance their catches on the lake contaminating extensive fish habitats. These intoxicated fish are eaten by many heron species including fish eagles, shoebills, ospreys, pelicans as well as other species like crocodiles and otters. The poison-laden fish are also sold, knowingly, in local markets to unsuspecting customers who eat the contaminated fish.
But such public health concerns can be mitigated through government and private sector efforts at educating Kenyan farmers about pesticides and their dangers. However, as it stands there is a woeful lack of awareness surrounding all aspects of pesticide usage and regulations. Subsistence and domestic market horticultural producers in Kenya are generally poor and many are illiterate and unable to read pesticide instruction labels. Few farmers use proper full protective clothing and do not store agricultural products in locked containers or wash their clothes after using pesticides.
But these farmers need to earn a living. So what about their dependence on pesticides like Carbofuran for healthy harvests? And, what about the Kenya government's efforts to bolster agricultural production to feed its ever increasing population in the light of chronic food shortages in some parts of the country? Surely pesticides have some role to play?
Conservationist have urged the Kenya government to encourage farmers to use low pesticide agricultural practices such as Integrated Pest Management as a way of reducing the harmful effects of Carbofuran and other potentially dangerous pesticides on the country's wildlife and environment. Organic agriculture and the promotion of the use of natural pesticides are two other methods that would help to mitigate the use of pesticides.
Perhaps the most challenging aspects of eliminating or controlling the use of Furadan 5G against wildlife in Kenya is that the active ingredient, Carbofuran, is still available in other over-the-counter pesticides. Worse still is that there are also some fake or counterfeit products which are now being sold in Uganda and taken to Kenya. It's a cheaper option and equally as destructive. China and India also continue to manufacture Carbofuran.