The Birds of Prey Working Group of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT-BoPWG) has designated September 1 as "National Vulture Awareness Day".
The idea of this day is to create awareness of the continued plight of all vulture species occurring in the region and to highlight the work done by conservationists to monitor populations and implement effective measures to conserve these birds and their habitats.
South Africa is home to no less than nine vulture species. Seven of these species are listed in the Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland (Barnes, 2000) as facing a certain degree of threat of extinction. The Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is one of only two bird species listed as regionally extinct in South Africa.
The bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), whose range in southern Africa is restricted to the Maluti-Drakensberg mountains in South Africa and Lesotho is classified as endangered and continues to decline in numbers due to a range of factors.
The Cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres) only occurs within southern Africa and the conservation of this species remains one of the main focal areas of the EWT-BoPWG. Other species, such as the lappet-faced- (Torgos tracheliotus), hooded- (Necrosyrtes monachus), white-headed- (Trigonoceps occipitalis) and African white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) mostly occur in large conservation areas and are listed as vulnerable.
Vultures are faced with a range of threats such as poisoning, persecution, electrocution and collision with powerlines, drowning in farm reservoirs in drier parts of the country, shortage of safe food supplies and loss of suitable habitat.
Additional factors, such as the harvesting of vultures for use in traditional medicine and divination or the capture and illegal trade in live birds have also been identified as contributing to the decline in populations of most species.
Even in areas such as the Kruger National Park, where these birds are considered to be safe from the effects of most negative human impacts, some tree-nesting species are being affected by the increase in the elephant population and the resultant damage to the vegetation due to the loss of suitable nesting trees.
One of the best-known conservation measures to have benefited vultures is the establishment of a wide network of supplementary feeding sites, also known as vulture restaurants, in areas where vultures occur.
These provide a safe and reliable source of food to these birds in areas where large predators no longer occur and where modern livestock farming methods have severely reduced the food available to vultures. Well-run vulture restaurants not only benefit vultures, but have also developed into popular tourist attractions where members of the public can get a "bird's-eye" view of these birds feeding and interacting with each other.
The vulture restaurant at the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre has been active for the last 12 years. According to Corrie van Wyk, between 150 and 400 vultures, of five different species, feed at the restaurant every day. "The marabou storks are the first to feed and they do it in such a frenzy that the vultures realise that it is safe to come down and join them," says Corrie.
A recent development in the monitoring of vulture populations is the fitting of numbered, coloured tags to the wings of vultures throughout most of the region in addition to ringing them.
This provides researchers with an affordable and safe method to identify birds individually, and aspects such as local movements and dispersal patterns, survival rates and longevity, causes of mortalities and potential threats can be obtained.
Over the last two years, more than 700 vultures of five species have been fitted with tags at 14 sites throughout southern Africa. A request to members of the public to report any of these birds has resulted in over 1600 records being submitted in the last 18 months and valuable information on the movement of these birds has been obtained. In line with this programme, Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre has tagged 120 birds since 2005.
These include eight Cape vultures, 17 marabou storks, three hooded vultures and 92 white backed vultures. In the first year, 96 percent of these birds were seen again. The last 100 birds were tagged in February this year. "One bird in particular was brought in to the Centre after being poisoned. It was fitted with a GPS harness after it was rehabilitated and released.
In five months the bird's movements had shown it to cover an area of five million hectares, ranging from Letaba in the Kruger National Park to Marloth Park on the southern borders of the Park, the Mozambican border, then Lydenburg before it moved to the Winterberg mountains near Port Elizabeth via Pilanesberg and Kimberley, where it stayed for three months before returning to the Manoutsa Cape Vulture colony. The return trip from Port Elizabeth took three days and is approximately a 1500 kilometre journey."
You Can Help
Members of the public can become involved in monitoring the movements of vultures during their travels in the region by reporting all sightings of tagged vultures throughout the year. Should any vultures be seen, the observer should record the date, time, locality, GPS coordinates (if possible), species, habitat and condition of the bird.
Most importantly, the colour of the tag and its specific alpha-numeric code must be recorded as this will provide us with an exact idea of the area where the bird was tagged. Ideally, observers should also at-
tempt to photograph the tagged bird and submit a low-resolution image (les than 100Kb) with their report.
Information can be sent to the South African Bird Ringing Unit (Safring) in Cape Town at telephone number +27 (0)21 650-2421/2 or firstname.lastname@example.org or contact the Birds of Prey Working Group directly at +27 (0)11 646-4629 or email@example.com, or contact Brian Jones at Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre at 015 795 5236.