Flight risk

2009-11-14 00:00

VULTURES across southern Africa are under major threat, largely due to poisoning and collisions with power lines.

Sonja Kruger, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife ecologist for the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site, has been running the Maloti-Drakensberg Vulture Project since 2000, working to prevent the decline of cliff-nesting vultures.

Kruger and her team monitor the movements and nesting sites of the bearded (Gypaetus barbatus) and Cape vultures (Gyps coprotheres), species that are found in the the Drakensberg and Lesotho.

“The bearded vulture is the logo of the park and no one really knew, when I started as an ecologist in 2000, how many we had, so we initiated a monitoring programme to look specifically at the number of breeding pairs. We’ve found just on 200 nests in southern Africa and of those, fewer than half have been active in the past few years,” said Kruger.

After five years of monitoring work, the urgency of the vultures’ situation was fully realised and work intensified.

“We’ve done some computer modelling to look at what’s happening to the population and there is a probability that they will be extinct in 100 years’ time,” she said.

Catching and tagging the birds began in order to identify them when sighted in the air and at feeding sites. When funds became available for fitting satellite tracking devices to birds, it enabled the project to get accurate data about the vultures’ movements rather than depend on resightings of birds fitted with patagial tags or rings.

In 2007 these devices were fitted on three bearded vultures in the Underberg region, and in 2008 a further two were fitted to bearded vulture chicks in Lesotho. In June one of the chicks was found dead in the Eastern Cape and forensic tests confirmed poisoning.

Kruger said: “The vultures are most at threat from poisoning and collisions with power lines. Ecologically vultures form a clean-up operation, swallowing the bones and helping to stop the spread of disease from rotting carcasses.

“They are poisoned accidentally when medicated livestock die and are left out for the vultures, or farmers may be trying to kill predators and bearded vultures eat the poisoned bait meant for them.”

Vultures perform a vital function in getting rid of dead livestock, but some carcasses are lethal and it is a huge challenge for the vulture project to communicate this.

In August, with funding from the Wildlands Conservation Trust, Kruger and her team were able to fit additional satellite tracking devices to six vultures in the Underberg region. The pattern of movement of these birds already shows that they have made visits to the Giant’s Castle vulture restaurant, a well-known feeding site.

In mid-September, a bearded vulture was electrocuted on power lines directly in line with the Giant’s Castle vulture restaurant. This means that her birds with satellite tracking devices flying in this area are under direct threat.

Knowing the sites for vultures to feed and seeing their movement patterns and behaviour help Kruger’s team to make these areas safer for them. With only 50 to 100 bearded vulture breeding pairs left in southern Africa and so many dangers facing them, protecting this endangered bird becomes vital.

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