The Fight to Save the Vultures of Southern Africa

On the morning of the vulture capture on Zululand Rhino Reserve (ZRR), clouds dotted the sky – providing us occasional respite from the searing sun. Patience is one of the most important components of working with wildlife, and this morning would be no different. A carcass was laid on the ground a few hundred meters away from us with vulture traps set beside it. Members of the Wildlife ACT Team were staked out high in a watchtower and attentively surveyed the scene as our intended subjects began to fly in from afar.

White-backed Vulture. Photo by Richard Steyn

White-backed Vulture. Photo by Richard Steyn

Slowly vultures begin to arrive. Many started riding thermals around in dramatic circles, while others perched in trees nearby with a good view of the proceedings. Gradually some vultures began to venture to the ground and approach the carcass. The lookouts continued to watch and we continued to wait – ready to move in at a moment’s notice…

Vultures are in a perilous situation. Of the six species of vulture that occur in ZRR, the Lappet-faced and the Cape vultures are classified as ‘endangered’ while the White-backed, White-headed and Hooded vultures are classified as ‘critically endangered’. The vultures of Southern Africa are literally teetering on the edge of extinction.

Just how did vultures get to the point where we are faced with the imminent loss of multiple species in southern Africa? In addition to the largest enemies of all wildlife (habitat loss coupled with ever-increasing human populations) vultures are particularly vulnerable to a few species-specific threats.

Why are Vultures so Endangered?

  1. Firstly, they are vulnerable to indiscriminate poisoning, which is usually aimed at other species like predators which kill livestock.
  2. Secondly, the use of vulture body parts in traditional medicine is a common practice in southern Africa. Vulture parts are believed to bestow clairvoyance and intelligence.
  3. Thirdly, they are subject to deliberate poisoning or killing by poachers because they give away the location of larger animals that have been poached – such as rhinos or elephants.

A trifecta of conservation threats push them closer towards extinction every year…

Vulture Tagging Project 1

Vulture Conservation in Action!

“We’ve got one!” one of the lookouts shouts down to the ground team. Our patience has paid off and Chris Kelly from Wildlife ACT and Andre Botha from Endangered Wildlife Trust race ahead, safely get hold of the bird, and remove it from the trap. The team joins them and measurements are taken, the wing is tagged with an identification number, an ID ring is fitted to its leg, and for this particular bird, a GPS backpack is fitted.

Vulture Tagging Project 4

After all this is completed the bird is released and flies off to join its cohorts and feast on the carcass. Today’s activities are part of the Zululand Vulture Tagging Project – an ongoing conservation initiative between EWT, Wildlife ACT, and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife – set up to monitor Zululand’s threatened vulture populations. The data captured provides critical information on population dynamics and trends. Over the course of the day two further vultures are captured and released.

Vultures begin flying in from other reserves throughout Zululand to take part in the feast. Trees hang heavy with vultures perched on the lookout – resting with full bellies. Vultures squabble and squawk at one another – comically jostling for a position at the carcass. Imagining an Africa without vultures is unthinkable. The resultant hole in the ecosystem would be disastrous as vultures function as cleaners of the veld and preventers of disease outbreaks. They hold a vital role in the Circle of Life.

Vulture Tagging Project 2

What can I do to help the Vultures of Southern Africa?

Wildlife ACT is dedicated to protecting our vultures and you can help. One of the most important things you can do is report tagged vulture sightings. If you see a tagged vulture in southern Africa, please record the identification number and species (if possible) along with the GPS (or physical) location. If you can, snap a photograph of the animal with the ID tag displayed. This information can be passed onto andreb@ewt.org.za or chris@wildlifeact.com. The more information they are able to accrue, the better we will understand the status of our vulture populations.

Donations can be made to support the Zululand Vulture Project via GivenGain, but in order to decrease the number of poisonings and indiscriminate killings, education is necessary. One is also able to support Wildlife ACT’s Community Outreach programs via GivenGain which is working to establish and love and respect for nature among people who live alongside endangered wildlife species.

Vulture Tagging Project 3

But beyond donations, we appeal to you all to spread awareness and be a vulture ambassador! Share this article, the videos and other information on the plight of the vultures of Southern Africa. Fight for stringent wildlife trade laws and enforcement. Volunteer with Wildlife ACT for the chance to help assist the Vulture Tagging Project hands-on. Help us ensure that vultures will always be soaring through the African sky.

Written by Shannon Airton

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