A long sight on vultures

The Cape Vulture is now extinct as a breeding species in most of Southern Africa. (Supplied)

The Cape Vulture is now extinct as a breeding species in most of Southern Africa. (Supplied)

Vultures are a crucial part of the ecosystem. The way they eat helps to minimise the outbreak and spread of diseases, keeps vermin populations in check and alerts conservationists and farmers to where poachers have been active.

This in turn assists in maintaining the ecological balance in game reserves and on private land.

The Cape Vulture is southern Africa’s only endemic vulture species and is listed as endangered by the IUCN-World Conservation Union.

With only 2 900 breeding pairs left, this species has declined across its range and is now extinct as a breeding species in Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Namibia.

Threats include collisions with and electrocution by power lines, loss of habitat and lack of suitable food. Traditional healers and hunters trade in vulture body parts because they believe they give them psychological powers or heal certain illnesses. Poachers kill them to avoid detection.

Vultures also die when they ingest poison left for pests. Diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug often used for livestock, kills vultures when they eat the animals’ carcasses.

“The negligence and ignorance of modern humankind have taken an enormous toll on vultures,” says Kerri Wolter, chief executive of the Vulture Conservation, Rehabilitation and Educational Programme (VulPro).

“Getting the conservation message across to people when they are young is important.”

The programme distributes a handbook titled What’s Cool About Vultures? It also distributes interactive worksheets to schoolchildren. It reaches out to adults across southern Africa to inform them about the urgent need for a united conservation campaign to save Africa’s vultures.

“Our children need to conserve and protect biodiversity in a sustainable manner, learning to live with and respect all species. They also need to educate their peers, friends and family about their knowledge,” says Wolter.

VulPro works closely with the University of Pretoria’s faculty of veterinary sciences research department, as well as a network of committed volunteers.

Research to date has involved the tagging and re-sighting of tagged birds, especially at vulture “restaurants”, to identify the vulture foraging and distribution ranges.

Vultures that have been harmed through accidents, mutilation or poisoning are rehabilitated, while new vultures are bred, reared and then sent back into the wild with GPS tracking devices. The information gathered from the GPS is used to monitor, plan for and educate others on the behaviour of vultures.