South Africa is home to nine vulture species. Seven of these are listed in the Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland (Barnes, 2000) as facing a threat of extinction. The Hooded vulture, Necrosyrtes monachus was recently upgraded by the IUCN and is now considered globally endangered.
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. The Cape Vulture, Gyps coprotheres only occurs within southern Africa.
Other species, such as the Lappet-faced vulture, Torgos tracheliotus, Whiteheaded vulture, Trigonoceps occipitalis and African whitebacked vulture, Gyps africanus mostly occur in large conservation areas and are listed as vulnerable. Vultures are threatened by poisoning, persecution, electrocution and collision with power lines, drowning in farm reservoirs in drier parts of the country, shortage of safe food supplies and loss of suitable habitat. Other threats, such as use in traditional medicine and divination, or the capture and illegal trade in live birds, have also been identified. Even in areas such as the Kruger National Park, where these birds are considered mostly safe from negative human impacts, some tree-nesting species are affected by the increase in the elephant population, which has resulted in a loss of suitable nesting trees.
The first Saturday of September every year is International Vulture Awareness Day. Started by the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Birds of Prey Programme and its partners and associates in 2006, this has become a global event and in 2009, 164 organisations from 57 countries participated, promoting vulture conservation across the world.
The day, which this year falls on 3 September, aims to create awareness about the plight of vultures globally and to highlight the work done by conservationists to protect these birds and their habitats. Vulture Awareness Day recently led the IUCN Species Survival Commission to establish a Vulture Specialist Group, which will coordinate and focus vulture conservation from a global perspective. Since the early seventies, the EWT has worked to ensure the survival of vultures in South Africa and its neighbouring countries. One of the best known conservation measures to have benefited vultures is the establishment of a wide network of supplementary feeding sites, or ‘vulture restaurants’.
These provide vultures with a safe and reliable source of food in areas where modern livestock farming methods have severely reduced the food available to them, and where large predators no longer occur. Well run vulture restaurants not only benefit vultures, but some have also developed into popular tourist attractions.