Vultures have their fill at ‘restaurants’, UCT scientists find

2020-01-21 06:00
Two White Backed Vultures on Dead Branch.

Two White Backed Vultures on Dead Branch.

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South Africa’s vulture restaurants are dishing up valuable information for researchers working to conserve Africa’s scavenger species, according to a new scientific study published in the international journal Animal Conservation.

Researchers at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town (UCT) collected information from 143 vulture feeding sites across South Africa, and found that these “restaurants” provide around 3 301 tons of meat each year – enough to feed almost the entire regional vulture population.

A popular conservation tool first, these restaurants were first started in the 1970s to help protect vultures in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Conservationists hope feeding sites may limit the birds’ exposure to poison-laced carcasses put out by farmers or poachers.

Up until now there has been little research into how these restaurants impact on vulture populations. The UCT team set out to provide a baseline for further research by collecting data from hundreds of sites, of these 143 were found to be currently “active”.

These restaurants were located across South Africa (mostly KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape).

Lead author Christiaan Brink, a PhD student at UCT, hopes the new study will help inform future conservation decisions.

“The beneficial effects of supplementary feeding sites for vultures are still debated and there may be trade-offs which should be considered,” Brink said.

Results suggest the number of feeding sites has stabilised over the past decade, with each site providing an average of around 65kg of meat per day.

Sites attract a broad range of vultures but species with large home ranges (for example African white-backed and Cape vultures) have the greatest access to these sites.

However, the authors acknowledge that the impacts from these sites might not be all positive. The study notes that a significant number of site managers were unaware of the dangers of inadvertently poisoning vultures via contaminated meat. Conservationists are very concerned about vultures ingesting toxic lead fragments from spent ammunition in hunted carcasses and about consuming some veterinary drugs.

However, Brink said: “We found that 68% of managers were unaware of the dangers of lead and 28% were unaware about the dangers of veterinary drugs, suggesting that many feeding sites may be providing carcasses containing these substances.

“This could undermine the potential positive effects of supplementary feeding sites for vultures,” he said.

The study was funded by the Department of Science and Technology – National Research Foundation through the Centre of Excellence grant to the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, at UCT.

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