Raptor Conservationists Rewarded at Annual Conference

© Karl Svendsen

The fourth annual birds of prey conference, hosted by the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Birds of Prey Working Group (EWT-BoPWG), took place in Skukuza in the Kruger National Park (KNP) this year.

Delegates had the opportunity to indulge in bird news and activities that varied from workshops on traditional medicine use and its impact on raptor populations in southern Africa to meetings about the Cape vulture task force's activities and the migratory kestrel project.

A field trip in Kruger ensured a practical view on proceedings. The five-day programme included two days of presentations on May 29 and 30, 2008.

These ranged from an overview of EWT-BoPWG activities and the current large bird research initiatives in the Kruger National Park to several talks on vultures, including a biological study of the white-headed vulture Aegypius occipitalis in southern Africa, nesting habitat preferences of white-backed vultures Gyps africanus, and the effects of human disturbance, as well as a talk on vultures in west Africa - the creation of the Fouta Djallon Vulture Sanctuary in Guinea.

Other topics included an update on the South African Bird Atlas Project II and molecular genetic work done on raptors at the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria. One highlight was the annual awards ceremony to honour individuals who have made a substantial contribution to the conservation of birds of prey in southern Africa.

The 2007 Diurnal Raptor was awarded to Johan Strijdom and Sonja Krüger for their exceptional contribution towards raptor conservation efforts in southern Africa. Andre Botha, chairman of the EWT-BoPWG, expanded on Sonja and Johann's achievements at the awards function.

Sonja Krüger

"In the early 2000s Sonja raised the alarm that there might be a problem with bearded vultures. This was scoffed at and she was told by raptor experts that there was no problem and that she was working with bad data. "In truth the data was not good.

"Undaunted she spent the next three years collecting more data, organising the first ground-based surveys of the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) escarpment since Chris Brown's work in the early 1980s and the helicopter count in the mid 1990s.

"Her data led her to believe that her initial suspicions were true, and again she raised the alarm. With her persistence and enthusiasm, people started to listen. Mainly through her efforts did the vulture specialist group (VSG)/BoPWG provide some of the initial funding for more intensive monitoring, as did the Wildlands Conservation Trust. The Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Project (MDTP) also committed significant funding, including for the population and habitat viability assessment (PHVA), with Richard Lechmere-Oertel as a key ally and supporter.

"It was at the bearded vulture PHVA where the sceptics were finally silenced. It was demonstrated that the population was significantly smaller than in the 1980s and was continuing to decline. Sonja played a major role in motivating for, participating in and editing the final report.

"On the basis of the results of the PHVA, MDTP parted with significant funds for additional surveys and for the establishment of three freezer rooms so as to provision safe carcasses in areas strategically identified as requiring additional safe food.

"EKZNW paid for a trip to Europe to allow Sonja to meet people working in the field of bearded vulture conservation and rehabilitation, and to attend the annual bearded vulture conference. As a result of this trip Sonja established ongoing collaboration with fellow enthusiasts in Spain, Switzerland and France, recently resulting in the donation of satellite transmitters.

"These were fitted in 2007 with the assistance of Spanish ornithologists. This is the first time outside of Europe that this technology has been used on this species and in the process Sonja developed skills in both catching bearded vultures and fitting harnesses. The data being collected is already revealing extremely interesting results.

"Sonja has been particularly good at raising the profile of the species, amongst staff of conservation agencies and amongst the public. She has produced numerous press releases, published many articles (local and international) in the popular literature, and organised several inserts on national television.

"She has also set up a system of volunteers to assist with monitoring - twice a large group of Spanish ornithologists has come out to assistwith field surveys. She has also set up, trained and managed 'nest site champions', which has led to some important discoveries, most notably in the last season of a nest site in the eastern Free State where bearded vultures were thought to have disappeared.

"Sonja has been the main driving force in the establishment and successful operation of the bearded vulture task force. Many PHVAs have ended up on shelves, but not this one. Through the task force, which is chaired by Sonja, action deadlines are set, progress monitored, and problem areas resolved.

"Given that the future of the species relies on conservation action in both South Africa and Lesotho, Sonja has worked hard, together with Ian Rushworth and Richard Lechmere-Oertel, in ensuring that there is transfrontier collaboration with Lesotho. Lesotho is well represented on the bearded vulture task force and specific interventions thus far have focused on raising awareness of powerline interactions and improving surveys.

"We now know of many more known nest sites than when Sonja started her work, and we know more about the foraging range. No evidence yet of change in fortunes, but we know where we are, and know where we want to get to and by when," said Andre. "She has sacrificed many hours of her personal time in the evenings and over weekends, as well as spending a lot of time in the Drakensberg Mountains under trying conditions, or in aircraft flying perilously close to cliff faces. The bearded vulture has a champion and is in good hands."

Johan Strijdom

Johan Strijdom is owner of the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre near Hoedspruit. In his nomination, Brian Jones, manager of Moholoholo, said Johan has unquestionably given his all to the saving of wildlife, especially raptors.

"Johan has willingly paid for all veterinary expenses at Moholoholo for vultures and eagles for the last 17 years, many of which come in with broken wings from power lines and other man-made hazards. He also pays regularly for analysis of poison cases at the Onderstepoort facility in Pretoria.

"Our vulture restaurant is another contribution to the welfare of raptors. Strijdom purchases from Karan Beef in Heidelberg in Gauteng and transports to Moholoholo. All this has mounted to more than half a million rand. "The expenses of running our clinic for these sick and injured birds, the lengths he allows us to go to in order to aid many incredible raptor species, and the unquestioning willingness to fund the centre's efforts are just some of the reasons why I recommend Johan for this award," concluded Brian. Raptor conservationists rewarded at annual conference.

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