On the first Saturday of September every year, International Vulture Awareness Day is celebrated. This is a time to not only reflect on the importance of vultures and the essential role they play in a healthy ecosystem, but also a time to spread awareness and take action.
These misunderstood birds are extremely important members of an ecosystem – flying in from huge distances to pick decaying carcasses clean, thereby helping to prevent disease outbreaks. A world without vultures would be a foul-smelling place filled with disease and rotting carcasses across our landscape. This clean-up crew essentially helps to maintain the functioning and health of an ecosystem.
Vultures are equipped with a digestive system that contains special acids that are able to dissolve anthrax, botulism and even cholera bacteria. The excess rotting carcasses can result in an increase of scavenging carnivores, both wild and feral, which lead to further consequences caused by an imbalance in the system and the spread of other harmful diseases like rabies.
“The importance of vultures to the ecosystem really cannot be overstated”, says Wildlife ACT Emergency Response Manager, PJ Roberts. “These highly-threatened birds provide an incredible ‘clean-up service’ for the environment. Identifying carcasses from kilometres away, vultures swiftly move in and can finish a carcass within minutes. By vultures removing decomposing animals from the landscape, humans are ensured a clean environment free of carcass-borne diseases.”
Threats to Vultures
Due to their unique habits, vultures face a multitude of threats, which include direct and indirect poisoning, electrocutions and collisions with energy infrastructure, habitat loss, disturbance and the shortage of food.
Throughout Southern Africa, vultures are specifically targeted and poached for belief-based use in the “muthi” trade. Information about the extent of traditional use of vulture parts is sorely lacking, so research and investigations are required to help inform and implement demand reduction campaigns.
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Many cultures have superstitions about vultures, such as the birds being harbingers of death, or mistaken beliefs that vultures are a threat to healthy livestock, and in many areas vultures are still illegally hunted or driven away from food sources. Accidental poisoning is a further issue, as some medicinal drugs used to treat livestock are fatally toxic to vultures. The birds may also be poached as trophies or for the illegal feather trade.
The Southern African vulture population has been heavily persecuted over the past year with multiple mass poisoning events in Botswana, Kruger and Zululand
Lead-poisoning has been largely overlooked in the past, but more recently has been identified as a threat to vultures. The irresponsible use of lead-based ammunition results in vultures feeding on contaminated carcasses, consisting of both wild game and domestic animals. Tiny fragments are ingested, which impact both the nervous and reproductive systems. Birds with lead poisoning will exhibit loss of balance, gasping, tremors and an impaired ability to fly. Emaciation follows and death can occur within two to three weeks after lead ingestion.
As a result of these ongoing threats, many vulture species are now only breeding within protected nature reserves and sightings are becoming more and more of a luxury. Of the five Savannah species found in South Africa, all are classified as either endangered or critically endangered. Current trends in important sub-populations of these species, such as inKwaZulu-Natal, are indicating that all breeding pairs of White-Headed Vultures and Lappet-Faced Vultures will be locally extinct within the next few years.
The Work Being Done to Save Vultures
Wildlife ACT works closely with partners such as Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, The Endangered Wildlife Trust, BirdLife SA and the National Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries to help protect vultures in South Africa.
- Using the latest tracking technologies, we have enabled the fine-scale monitoring of vultures to accurately identify “vulture hotspots” and thereby ensure that these areas are where our conservation energy and mitigation measures are focused.
- Annual nest surveys are carried out to monitor breeding success and long-term trends in nesting pair abundance which is used to measure the health of our current vulture populations.
Wildlife ACT focuses on the 3 tree-nesting vulture species, namely: the African White-Backed Vulture (critically endangered), the Lappet-Faced Vulture (endangered) and White-Headed Vulture (critically endangered), and the 2 cliff nesters; Cape Vulture (Endangered) and Bearded Vulture (Critically Endangered)
- A dedicated fund for emergency response enables an effective rapid response team of technically trained staff with the appropriate equipment. This ensures swift response to any poisoning events and effective scene decontamination which prevents mass mortalities of vultures.
- We continue to build on the gains already made in the hunting industry and maintain the momentum to phase out lead-based firearm ammunition. We work to ensure that, during this phasing-out period, the correct and safe disposal of lead-contaminated carcasses takes place, reducing the exposure to vultures. We continue to test lead levels in wild caught individuals to monitor the effectiveness of these mitigation measures and ascertain the extent of compliance with the new regulations.
FACT: A vulture takes between 5 to 7 years to reach maturity, after which they only lay 1 egg a year. It therefore takes 2 individuals, 2 years, to pair up during breeding season, just to replace themselves and sustain numbers.
To date, Wildlife ACT, together with their partners, have fitted over 65 vultures with GPS backpacks/trackers, tagged and sampled over 150 individuals, conducted 36 nest surveys, and successfully released 14 recovered birds.
The implementation of tracking equipment and monitoring protocols for vultures in Zululand, is also helping to discover new potential threats. With new information at hand, targeted outreach and educational initiatives will be implemented by Wildlife ACT and partners to better understand the issue and help shed light on the critical importance of vultures. Recent poisoning incidents have also led to further dialogue with authorities and will help support the prosecution of those found in the illegal procession of vulture body parts.
Educating and creating awareness among local farmers and communities living near protected areas, as well as the wider public, also forms a huge part of our vulture conservation work. It needs to be understood that the vulture crisis could very well mean a human crisis.
Video Credit: Rhino Africa Safaris
How to Help Save Vultures
- Vulture conservation is in desperate need of support and is heavily reliant on the public to help spread awareness and to fund the work being done to help save this ecologically-essential species. The technology used is expensive, and funding is needed to purchase more backpacks and other essential equipment.
- Our Emergency Response Team of conservationists on the ground are the ones saving the lives of any poisoned vultures by rapidly responding to any poaching incidents. This requires fuel and equipment in order to operate effectively.
- We also encourage the public to report any tagged vulture sightings in Southern Africa to Project Vulture at the following link: http://projectvulture.org.za/report-vulture-sighting/
If any tagged vulture is sighted, please record the identification number and species (if possible) along with the GPS (or physical) location and take a photograph of the bird with the ID tag displayed if at all possible.
“We also need help with changing perceptions around certain wildlife species. Like sharks and hyaenas, vultures are often stereotyped as the “bad guys”. But despite what humankind thinks of them, we need to acknowledge their importance and take a holistic approach in protecting vultures.
To do this successfully, we need to take a collective stand to spread awareness, raise funds and report sightings to help protect these unique birds.” Chris Kelly, Species Director, Wildlife ACT
A Vulture Success Story
Towards the end of June 2020, a successful release of 3 critically endangered African White-Backed Vultures took place on Manyoni Private Game Reserve. It took 6 to 9 months before this important release could take place, while the birds were being rehabilitated with Raptor Rescue Rehabilitation Centre, after a surge of vulture poisonings that occurred across Zululand at the end of 2019.These success stories are only possible through collaboration, fast action, and public support. Saving a species from extinction cannot be achieved alone.
Video Credit: The Safari Media Co