Conservation | Sep 2021

White-backed vulture conservation

Critically endangered vultures are breeding at Tswalu

Tswalu Kalahari recently discovered several breeding nests of white-backed vultures on the reserve for the first time. It was good news ahead of this year’s International Vulture Awareness Day on 4 September. Five nests were found in a thicket of silver cluster-leaf trees (Terminalia sericea) on two parallel dunes. Breeding on two of the nests was confirmed by BirdLife South Africa’s Linda van den Heever when she visited Tswalu to carry out an audit – the first inspection of the reserve since being declared a Vulture Safe Zone (VSZ) in 2019.

“White-backed vultures are critically endangered, which is one step away from extinction in the wild. Every nest must be nurtured!” – Linda van den Heever, BirdLife SA

There is an extensive white-backed vulture colony to the north of Tswalu, along the Kuruman River near Vanzylsrus. On her recent visit, Linda found more white-backed vulture nests along the tar road to Vanzylsrus, indicating that the extensive colony along the Kuruman River may be spreading south. Before this discovery, the only known species breeding on the reserve was the lappet-faced vulture.

Tswalu Kalahari was declared South Africa’s first Vulture Safe Zone (VSZ) in 2019 by BirdLife SA, kickstarting a growing network of protected zones across southern Africa that is making it easier for vulture populations to breed and thrive. A VSZ is an area in which landowners and communities work collaboratively to implement targeted conservation measures to address local threats, such as poisoning.

Image by Gus van Dyk

The aim of establishing these zones is threefold: to stabilise existing vulture populations, expand their populations by creating safe habitat and conditions that will allow them to thrive, and stabilise their populations to such an extent that they return to regions where they have become extinct.

“Vultures are very fickle when it comes to establishing new breeding colonies,” said Linda. “Studies have shown that the decline of these raptors in South Africa is not related to a lack of food. It’s rather the anthropogenic threats that are hammering them. These include scavenging on a carcass laced with poison by poachers or by farmers trying to eradicate predators, such as jackals and caracals, ingesting lead when feeding on carcasses that have been shot with lead ammunition, and being killed for belief-based muti, or medicine. Vultures are known to breed slowly, so even the loss of a few mature individuals could have massive repercussions.”

Other significant threats include colliding with power lines and being electrocuted and the loss or disturbance of breeding habitat. Conservation efforts are often hampered by the ecology of vultures, as they travel vast distances in search of food, often crossing country borders.

Image by Barry Peiser

Every year, on the first Saturday of September, International Vulture Awareness Day brings to the forefront one of the planet’s most recognisable, albeit misunderstood, raptors. As scavengers, vultures play an important role in preventing the spread of disease in Africa’s ecosystems by removing decomposing carcasses from the environment. Recent decades have seen an alarming decline in Africa’s vulture populations, with three of South Africa’s eight vulture species (including the once-prolific white-backed vulture) now regarded as critically endangered.

Knowing that a vast wilderness area, like Tswalu, is becoming a sanctuary for white-backed vultures to breed is a conservation victory worth celebrating, taking us one step closer to ensuring the survival of these magnificent raptors.

Image by Gus van Dyk

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