Kenyan lions
© GettyKenya's lion population is a fifth of what it was in the 1970s
Conservationists call for ban after 'staggering' number of deaths

Conservationists in Kenya are calling for a deadly pesticide to be banned after it was linked to the poisoning of a "staggering" number of lions and other wildlife.

The East African nation famous for its immense game reserves is also home to traditional cattle herders whose livestock often comes under threat from predators such as lions and hyenas. In the past, this has seen lions shot or speared but more recently herders have switched to using deadly chemicals sprinkled over animal carcasses and left as traps for the big cats.

The lion researcher Laurence Frank, from the University of California, said lions were dying at a "staggering rate" with as many as 75 poisoned in the past five years. Combined with other threats including loss of habitat, this could eventually see the lion become extinct, Dr Frank told CBS's 60 Minutes.

Kenya's lion population is a fifth of what it was in the 1970s and across Africa the numbers are down to 30,000 from highs of 200,000. Herders living on the fringe of parks such as the Masai Mara are said to be using a tasteless and odourless chemical known as carbofuran, which, when eaten by animals, leads first to paralysis and then death over the course of 24 to 36 hours.

The drug is marketed as Furudan and is available in small pellet form over the counter in Kenya. Furudan is already banned in the EU and its use is restricted in the US, where it was blamed for the deaths of two million birds. In its granular form it is used to eradicate insects on crops such as rice and corn.

The Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey said: "We are appealing to the government... to go the way of Europe and the USA and ban the importation, sale, distribution and use of this deadly chemical in Kenya." The drug has become well known in rural Kenya, Dr Leakey said, as a way to easily dispose of predators.

The Philadelphia-based manufacturer of Furudan says it is taking "aggressive action" to prevent misuse of the product. It has halted sales to Kenya and is trying to buy back supplies.

"We will not resume sales until such time as we can be assured that the deliberate widespread misuse of our product won't occur, and if we can't be assured of that there is going to be no more sales to Kenya," said Milton Steele, the vice-president of the FMC corporation. The company had no evidence that its product was directly involved, he added, but would work with conservationists to address the issue.

Simon Thomsett, a Kenyan bird expert, said he feared that Furudan-poisoned carcasses were also connected to "the dramatic drop-off in the number of birds of prey" in recent years. Big predators poisoned with carbofuran are consumed by carrion eaters.

Efforts have been made to ease tensions between Kenya's many herder communities and its multimillion-pound tourist industry.

However, little profit from the safari industry trickles down to the pastoralists and a compensation scheme in Masai Mara had to be scrapped because of a lack of funds last year.