African Vulture populations are experiencing rapid declines. Historically, the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province of South Africa has supported healthy breeding populations of African White-Backed (Gyps africanus), Lappet-Faced (Torgos tracheliotos), White-Headed (Trigonoceps occipitalis), Cape (Gyps coprotheres) and Bearded (Gypaetus barbatus) Vultures, all of which have shown rapid declines within KZN. Our data shows that locally, the globally Critically Endangered White-Headed Vulture has likely gone functionally extinct in 2021. The globally Endangered Lappet-Faced Vulture is also on the verge of becoming locally extinct, with only 4 active nests in KZN in 2021, compared to 20 in 2020.
By cleaning up carcasses and other organic waste, as well as abating the risk of pathogen spill overs to humans, Vultures provide a critically important ecosystem service. In KZN, with high numbers of livestock present, as well as the human populations’ direct reliance on the environment, this ecosystem service is crucial for human health and the economy of KZN. Wildlife ACT’s Vulture Conservation Programme contributes significantly to maintaining this function that Vultures provide, by actively promoting the stabilization of populations.
Of the six Vulture species that occur in South Africa, all are either Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered.
- White-Headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis): Critically Endangered
- White-Backed Vulture (Gyps africanus): Critically Endangered
- Lappet-Faced Vulture (Torgos tracheliotos): Endangered
- Hooded Vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus): Critically Endangered
- Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres): Vulnerable
- Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus): Critically Endangered
Estimated Breeding Pairs in South Africa
- African White-Backed Vulture: Estimated 4000 breeding pairs
- Lappet-Faced Vulture: Estimated 180 pairs breeding pairs
- White-Headed Vulture: Estimated 80 to 100 breeding pairs
- Hooded Vulture: Estimated 50 to 100 breeding pairs
- Cape Vulture: Estimated 4,500 breeding pairs
- Bearded Vulture: Estimated 50 to 100 breeding pairs in South Africa and Lesotho
Major Threats to Vultures
Vultures in KZN face a range of threats. The following are just to name a few:
- Poison is a major contributor to Vulture deaths and population declines have been reported across much of Africa. Poisoning (intentional for the illegal Vulture trade and unintentional for predator control) has been identified as one of the biggest contributors to KZN’s Vulture population declines. There has been a 70% decline of breeding pairs since 2004, most likely as a result of the illegal use of poisons.
- Due to their wide wingspans, Vultures are susceptible to colliding with or being electrocuted by power lines.
- The risk of lead poisoning on birds has also been known for decades. In more recent studies, high lead levels in Vulture populations has been documented across most of Southern Africa, and studies are increasingly reporting that lead exposure is contributing to Vulture populations’ mortality rates.
- Unintentional poisoning by some types of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), used to treat livestock, are fatally toxic to Vultures.
Our Vulture Conservation Objectives:
The Vulture Conservation Programme works towards the following three main objectives:
- Population Stabilization and Habitat Protection through monitoring of Vultures to accurately identify Vulture hotspots, establishing and securing Vulture safe zones, the protection and monitoring of nest sites, rapid response to poisoning events, training field operatives on how to handle poisoned birds to ensure they are saved and reducing Vulture exposure to lead poisoning by phasing out of lead-based ammunition and the safe disposal of lead contaminated carcasses.
- Education and Community Conservation through education programs, especially to the youth, about the role Vultures play in the ecosystem and the value they provide, researching the drivers and demand for Vulture parts in the traditional medicine sector, development of meaningful demand-reduction campaigns which will lead to the reduction of Vulture poisoning for their body parts.
- Improved Advocacy through training field operatives on how to handle poisoning (crime) scenes to ensure convictions can occur, working with the provincial and judicial authorities to improve law enforcement and judicial processes, researching the economic value of the species to further advocate for their protection.
As active members of Project Vulture, the Zululand Vulture Project, the the Bearded Vulture Task Force, and the South African National Vulture Task Force, these objectives and the work we do to achieve them, are guided by the Multi-species Action Plan to conserve African-Eurasian Vultures (Vulture MsAP – see below), and contributes towards the Biodiversity Management Plan for Vultures in South Africa.
Wildlife ACT’s Work with Vultures
One of our Vulture conservation goals is to fine-scale Vulture movement patterns of the various species breeding in the province by deploying light-weight solar-powered GPS units to both adults and fledglings. We are hoping to identify trends based on these movements to help conservation management to better protect these endangered birds. The wing tag and leg ring re-sightings and GPS tracking database helps us build on existing understanding and knowledge of the threats they face and the areas they utilize the most. This information also allows us to understand population trends and survival rates that will further allow informed conservation decisions. It ultimately helps to inform and prioritize focused conservation action.
We work with stakeholders and partners to reduce the impacts of lead poisoning by advocating for the use of lead-free ammunition and safe disposal of lead-contaminated carcasses. The program does in-field and laboratory blood and bone lead level tests on all Vulture species to understand the extent of the threat of lead exposure and toxicity in KZN Vultures. This information will inform future policy around the use of lead in the environment and help us understand the effectiveness of the current mitigation measures.
The Emergency Response Team works towards reducing Vulture mortalities due to poisoning through the increased effectiveness of identifying and responding swiftly to poison events, and other threats. Through poison site decontamination, we save hundreds of birds from exposure to illegal poisons, and any impacts to unsuspecting humans are prevented. Some live individuals found on the scene are often saved and rehabilitated before being fitted with a GPS tracking unit and released back into the wild.
We promote Vulture population stabilization by increasing provision and management of safe, reliable food sources, as well as the implementation and maintenance of Vulture Safe Zones, through strong collaboration with stakeholders. Safe and reliable food provision is a proven method to have long lasting impacts on the recovery of Vultures and the ecosystem services they provide to all stakeholders and communities. These sites are chosen based on many factors such as absence of powerlines and other anthropogenic threats.
Vulture Profiles (created from our historical data for juveniles):
AFRICAN WHITE-BACKED VULTURE
Home Range: 70 000 to 107 000 km2
Distance from Nest: 530 km
Highest Altitude: 1610 m
Top Speed: 106 km/h
Average Speed: 41 km
Home Range: 30 000 to 90 000 km2
Distance from Nest: 494 km
Highest Altitude: 1194 m
Top Speed: 76 km/h
Average Speed: 39 km
Average Wingspan: 9 feet
AFRICAN WHITE-HEADED VULTURE
Home Range: 2 000 to 3 000 km2
Distance from Nest: 62 km
Highest Altitude: 1194 m
Wingspan: 230 cm
Interesting Vulture Facts
- Vultures have fantastic vision, which they use to identify carrion to feed on from kilometers away.
- Vultures are equipped with a digestive system that can deal with many potentially harmful pathogens, such as anthrax, botulism and cholera, effectively helping to prevent the spread of disease.
- These scavenging birds are actually very clean and usually bath at a favourite site on a daily basis.
- There are 23 species of Vultures in the World, of which 11 are found in Africa.
- Vultures can eat up to 20% of their own body weight in one sitting.
- A group of Vultures is called a venue, and when circling the air, a group of Vultures is called a kettle.
- Although Vultures are considered to be scavengers, White-Headed Vultures are known to hunt small prey such as Monitor Lizards.
- Vultures have bald heads and often bare necks. It is speculated that there aren’t any feathers where bacteria and other parasites can burrow into the skin when Vultures feed on rotting carcasses to cause infection. Any left-over pathogens are baked off by the sun.
- Vultures only breed once a year during the winter months, and only raise one chick per breeding season.
- Different Vulture species play different roles at a feeding site. While the Lappet-Faced Vultures are the largest and most dominant at the scene, despite masses of White-Backed Vultures in a feeding frenzy, the much smaller Hooded Vulture usually patrols along the outskirts for smaller bits and pieces.
What Can You Do To Help?
- Donate to the Cause
- Report Vulture Sightings of tagged individuals
- Read: Zululand Vulture Project Status Report 2019 – 2020
- Share this information!