/ 5 September 2008

SA vultures under threat of extinction

Once they soared in large numbers over the African veld, but poisoning, electrocution, habitat destruction and muti markets have taken their toll on South Africa’s vultures.

The country is home to nine vulture species, of which seven are now under threat of extinction, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) said in a statement to mark National Vulture Awareness Day on Saturday.

”Vultures are faced with various threats including poisoning, persecution, electrocution, collision with powerlines, drowning in farm reservoirs, food shortages and loss of suitable habitat.

”Recent research has shown that vultures are one of the species most threatened by the trade in traditional medicine, and there is strong evidence to suggest that traditional use is partly responsible for the rapid decline of vulture populations in the sub-continent.”

Among the endangered vulture species are the Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), renowned for dropping large bones to break them into small pieces, and whose range is now restricted to the Maluti and Drakensberg mountains.

”Its numbers continue to decline,” EWT said.

It noted that if the current rate of medicinal use of vulture body parts continued, ”some vulture species will be extinct in South Africa by 2020”.

Poachers typically used strong poisons to kill the birds and then sold them to large urban traditional medicine markets, where consumers often unknowingly bought parts of the poisoned birds.

In the past two years, more than 1 000 vultures of five different species had been fitted with tags at 14 sites throughout Southern Africa, while over 3 000 sightings of these birds had been recorded.

EWT encouraged members of the public to help monitor vulture movements by reporting sightings of tagged vultures.

”Observers should record the date, time, locality, GPS coordinates [if possible], species, habitat and condition of the bird. Most importantly, the colour of the wing tag and its specific alpha-numeric code must be recorded, as this will tell us where the bird was originally tagged.

”Ideally, observers should also photograph the tagged bird and submit a low-resolution image with their report.”

Vulture species that can be spotted in South Africa include the Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres), Lappet-faced Vulture (Torgos tracheliotus), Hooded Vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus), White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) and the African White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus). – Sapa