Conservation | Sep 2020

Vulture Conservation

Africa’s vultures are facing an uncertain future. Three of South Africa’s nine vulture species, including the once-prolific White-backed vulture, have declined to such an extent that they are regarded as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

On 7 September 2019, Tswalu Kalahari became South Africa’s first Vulture Safe Zone, leading the way in what will become a vast network of safe zones across the country that will allow vulture populations to stabilise and, eventually, thrive.

White-backed vulture; image by Duncan MacFadyen

First implemented in Asia, where vulture numbers were decimated by the use of the veterinary drug diclofenac, Vulture Safe zones cover vast stretches of privately owned land that are managed in ways that are conducive to vulture survival. Conservation includes retro-fitting power lines with mitigation measures to prevent collisions and electrocutions, sending members of staff for poison-response training, not using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for veterinary purposes, only using non-lead ammunition for hunting or culling purposes, ensuring that carcasses put out at vulture restaurants are properly vetted, ensuring that poisons are not used to deal with problem animals, and committing to safeguarding and monitoring any vulture nests that occur on the property.

Lappet-faced vultures are known to breed on Tswalu, nesting typically during the winter months. A single chick will hatch in late winter and nest for about four months before becoming fledgling. There are only two or three White-backed vulture pairs potentially nesting on the reserve, making a sighting very special.

Lappet-faced vulture; images by Duncan MacFadyen (left) and Deirdre Opie (right)

According to Gus van Dyk, Tswalu’s head of conservation, their breeding success depends on whether there is enough food for the chick (they only raise one chick a year, at best). Survival into adulthood is affected by persecution by farmers or poachers (both intentional and accidental poisoning), drowning in unprotected farm reservoirs, electrocution on non-vulture friendly power lines and being preyed on by wild cats, baboons, honey badgers or other raptors.

Annually, the first Saturday in September is dedicated to International Vulture Awareness Day. Vultures perform one of nature’s most important tasks: processing dead carcasses so that their nutrients can be recycled back into the earth. Without this service, rotting carcasses would attract increasing numbers of less specialised scavengers such as jackals, rats and feral dogs. This creates the ideal conditions for the spread of diseases such as rabies and canine distemper.

Vast numbers of vultures are lost when poachers lace the carcasses of poached animals with poisons in order to evade detection. A kettle of vultures circling over a carcass makes it easy for rangers to uncover poaching incidents quickly. As a result, poachers are killing vultures by poisoning the poached carcasses on which they feed.

White-backed vulture; image by Gus van Dyk

‘I think the biggest challenge to these vultures is that they fly across the entire sub-region and it only takes one poisoned carcass to wipe out a significant population. That, together with extremely slow recruitment, is a challenge for vulture conservation in general,’ says Gus.

It’s too soon to measure the impact of Tswalu’s status as a Vulture Safe Zone, but reserve management has been working closely with BirdLife South Africa to implement measures that will safeguard vulture populations on the property.

About BirdLife South Africa

BirdLife South Africa is the country partner of BirdLife International, a global partnership of conservation organisations that strives to conserve birds, their habitats and global biodiversity, by working with people towards sustainability in the use of natural resources. BirdLife International partners operate in more than 125 countries and territories worldwide. BirdLife South Africa relies on donor funding and financial support from the public to carry out its critical conservation work. Read more here.

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