Vulture Conservation Project

Project LocationNorth and West Gauteng Provinces, South Africa
Project TypeEndangered species protection
Endangered SpeciesCape Vulture (2,400 breeding pairs in southern Africa)
Local People Employed2
Schools SupportedOver 4,000 people under education programme including adults
Project Websitewww.vultureconservation.co.za

Vulture Conservation Project

Vultures, positioned at the top of the food chain, are an indicator of the health of the environment below them and their eating habits help to keep the natural world in balance.And, whilst it is true that vultures are scavengers, what is not always appreciated is that, as the undertakers of the skies, they will always choose fresh over decayed meat and thereby stop disease and infection from spreading.

Today, vultures face an unprecedented onslaught from human activities such as electrocutions and collisions with electrical structures, poisoning, land-use changes, a decrease in food availability and exposure to toxicity through veterinary drugs.

The Cape vulture is southern Africa’s only endemic vulture species and is considered ‘Endangered’ by the IUCN. With only 2,900 breeding pairs, this species has declined across its range and is now extinct as a breeding species in Zimbabwe, Swaziland and now Namibia.  As coordinator of the Cape Vulture Task Force in southern Africa, VulPro’s aim is to prevent the extinction of the Cape vulture. The work undertaken on the Cape has a knock-on affect on all vulture species across the globe.

Vulture Monitoring 

Although many of the threats to the Cape vulture have been identified, the threats have not been adequately addressed as the population continues to decline. Using GSM/GPS tracking devices to remotely follow the movements of vultures, the project is able to identify the key factors causing the decline in the species. Over and above researching their ranges, these tracking devices help identify ‘hot spot’ areas for powerline collisions, electrocutions and powerline roosting sites so that they can be identified and mitigated before an incident occurs. Additional information can be obtained on unidentified vulture feeding sites, new threats and the use of vultures for ‘Muti’.

Muti

Vultures are highly prized by African traditional healers, or Muti, as they believe vultures have the ability to foresee into the future, which is why they are sought after for lotto and gambling purposes. Muti believe that if you sniff the brain of a vulture or sleep with the skull under your pillow you will then dream of the correct lotto numbers or the name of the winning horse and thus win millions. Other uses include vulture feathers, which are believed to cure headaches, and vulture feet which are worn as lucky charms. Unfortunately, according to most traditional healers and muti-practitioners, there is no alternative. And, as the South African government recognises the use of traditional healers, any associated costs are met by medical aid which places even more pressure on the vulture species.

Vulture Rehabilitation

Injured, grounded and disabled vultures are taken to the VulPro Centre to assess their condition, treat accordingly and release wherever possible. The follow-up monitoring is just as important and this is done with tracking devices as well as monitoring at feeding sites, both visually and with the use of camera traps.

Awareness & Education Campaign

In addition to the monitoring programme, VulPro conducts an awareness and education campaign to bring the vultures’ predicament to people’s attention and inform them of its ecological role in the environment. The purpose of the programme is to break down people’s misconceptions about vultures so that they can learn to appreciate their beauty and importance. 

People living in the region, birders and ornithologists are also asked to participate in the re-sightings of tagged vultures, thereby giving them a sense of ownership over the project. These sightings are used in conjunction with the tracking information to ascertain the home and foraging range of the vultures.

Drugs Threat

Vultures are a misunderstood species, however they play a vital role in the ecosystem by clearing up dead carcasses, a trait that many farmers make use of by leaving dead livestock on their farms. Tracking equipment funded by Tusk has shown that the vultures are becoming more dependent on these restaurants due to urbanisation and lack of food.

However, this has opened the vultures up to a new threat. Populations of vultures are on the verge of extinction in South Asia due to the veterinary use of diclofenac, an anti inflammatory drug which is poisonous to the vultures. Diclofenac is not currently in use in Africa however, ketoprofen, a similar drug is. VulPro, in conjunction with the University of Pretoria, has proven that ketoprofen is also lethal to the birds. 

In response to this threat, VulPro has established ‘vulture restaurants’, safe feeding sites for vultures to feed on poison-free and uncontaminated carcasses, throughout the region. Food in the form of safe carcasses is supplied on a regular basis and bone fragments are crushed for the adult birds to take back to their chicks to help their own bone growth.

Researching the consequences of lead and veterinary drug poisoning to vultures is a priority of the project given the Asian vulture crisis which has led to three vulture species becoming critically endangered in just under 10 years.

Tusk Support

Since 2009, Tusk has provided annual grants to VulPro, mainly to fund monitoring of the Cape vulture populations, community workshops and development of the Vulture Centre. The most recent grant allowed VulPro to install a solar water pumping system to provide water throughout the Vulture Centre; to update the southern Africa vulture restaurant database in order to confirm whether the sites are still active or have been discontinued; and to develop a database for all known Cape vultures which have been tagged and re-sighted throughout southern Africa. This includes both wild caught and rehabilitated / released Cape vultures. A small grant goes a long way at VulPro.

Tusk is thrilled that Kerri was nominated as a finalist of the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa in 2013.

Notes from the field
South African winter months are our busy monitoring season as this is the only time in which we can get an accurate count of breeding pairs.  This means early mornings and long days spent looking through a telescope at the nests and counting, photographing and plotting vulture nests.

Our mornings start with us dressed like Eskimos - as we South Africans are not used to such freezing conditions! However, as the sun rises and as our hands start defrosting, we are greeted with vultures waking up and taking to the skies. The cold is soon forgotten and our nest counting is interrupted by the beauty and grace of these awe-inspiring birds.  Being out in the field, watching and studying vultures is often a reminder about how fragile our world is and the difficulties these birds are faced with each and every day.
Kerri Wolter, Manager Vulture Programme
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