/ 16 January 2023

Creecy’s plan to save South Africa’s imperilled vulture population

Deliberate and unintentional poisoning with pesticides and animal drugs, collision with power lines and habitat change are driving down the numbers of several species of vultures. (Photo by Patrice Correia / Biosphoto / Biosphoto via AFP)

They are nature’s clean-up crew, doing the dirty work of clearing animals’ carcasses and helping to keep ecosystems healthy by acting as natural recyclers.

But Africa’s vultures are circling towards extinction. Once common and widespread, populations of the scavengers have plummeted in most range states over the past 30 years. This decline has been driven by poisoning — intentional and unintentional — collisions and electrocutions with energy infrastructure and habitat change.

“The lack of collective and decisive action has ensured these declines are continuing on a continental scale, to which South Africa is not unique,” according to the draft multi-species biodiversity management plan for vultures in South Africa, which was recently published for public comment by Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy

Of the nine species in South Africa, seven have established breeding populations and the plan is focused on safeguarding their survival. It was developed by the National Vulture Task Force, which was established by the department.

Soaring to extinction

The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List status of African-Eurasian vultures highlights the level of threat facing these species in recent years, Creecy wrote in the foreword. 

“Three of these species [white-headed, hooded and white-backed vulture] are listed as globally critically endangered, the highest category of threat, indicating a high risk of extinction in the wild. 

Unless effective conservation action is implemented nationally, several of these species will probably become extinct soon, she warned. “The immense scale and extent of the population declines of vultures in Africa have only recently been exposed and has led to the term, African vulture crisis.”

The lappet-faced vulture is endangered, while regionally the bearded vulture has been assessed as critically endangered because of the declines in the local population and range contraction. In December 2021, the Cape vulture was downlisted from endangered to vulnerable. 

Survival plan 

Among the objectives of the 118-page draft are to reduce and eventually halt the practice of intentional poisoning of vultures and to work alongside traditional medicine practitioners to ensure the implementation of “responsible and sustainable practices” that will contribute to the conservation of the species.

It seeks to ensure veterinary and human pharmaceuticals that have proven to be or suspected of harming wildlife are kept out of the food chain”; to provide environmentally friendly alternative measures to control damage-causing animals to avoid causing harm to non-target species, and to reduce the effect of lead on vultures to an acceptable level.

The plan also aims to substantially reduce vulture mortalities caused by energy infrastructure, to mitigate deaths from new energy infrastructure and to increase the land under biodiversity protection.   

Indiscriminate poisoning

Most South African vulture populations are affected to varying degrees by unintentional and intentional poisoning, it states. 

This happens when they consume poisoned carcasses set out to target other species to alleviate human-wildlife conflict, feed on the carcasses of animals that have died from consuming a poisonous substance, consume livestock that has been treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or other veterinary medicines harmful to vultures, and consume food that contains lead fragments or traces of lead.

Synthetic pesticides are widely used as the poison of choice for killing predators such as lion, leopard, hyena and jackal. Although such use of pesticides is illegal, implementation and enforcement of the regulations is often weak. 

Poisoned baits are often large carcasses such as livestock that have been killed by predators. This poisoning is indiscriminate and vultures are especially vulnerable “and can die in large numbers during a single incident due to their social feeding behaviour”. 

African traditional medicine

Lead-based ammunition used in hunting, wildlife management, agricultural practices and problem animal control poses a serious threat to vultures. “Their highly acidic stomachs, which dissolve more lead than the stomachs of other animals, increase the absorption of the heavy metal.”

Vultures are intentionally poisoned for traditional medicine, in which wildlife parts and derivatives are used to treat a range of physical and mental diseases, or to bring good fortune. Cape vultures are among those caught and consumed for purported medicinal and psychological benefits in African traditional medicine. 

The draft plan notes, for example, how it is estimated that 160 vultures are sold annually and that there are 59 000 vulture-parts consumed in eastern South Africa each year, involving an estimated 1 250 hunters, traders and healers. At recent harvest levels, the populations of Cape vultures in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho could become locally extinct within 44 to 53 years.

Deliberate and unintentional poisoning with pesticides and animal drugs, collision with power lines and habitat change are driving down the numbers of several species of vultures. (Photo by Patrice Correia / Biosphoto / Biosphoto via AFP)

Sentinels of poaching

Vultures are poisoned by elephant poachers who may use large quantities of toxic pesticides on elephant carcasses because circling vultures signal illicit activities to those who are combating poaching. Vulture mortality associated with ivory poaching has increased more rapidly than that associated with any other types of poisoning, accounting for one third of all vulture poisonings recorded in Africa since 1970. 

“This phenomenon has now been recorded in South Africa, where two incidents resulted in the deaths of 154 white-backed vultures after feeding from poisoned elephant carcasses in the Kruger National Park.”

Since January 2019, at least 450 vultures of four threatened species, eight lions, two leopards, spotted hyaenas and several other species have been killed in at least 13 incidents in Kruger alone because poached animal carcasses were laced with poison. Most of these incidents were in the northern regions of the park. At least three incidents have been recorded in the southern half of Kruger since February 2020. 

Collisions and electrocutions

With their large wingspan and gregarious roosting, large bird species such as vultures are particularly vulnerable to electrocution and “South Africa has experienced numerous vulture mortalities as a result”.

Powerline collisions is one of the main factors that have caused major declines of Cape, white-backed and lappet-faced vultures in South Africa.

Wind energy threat

The increase in renewable energy installations will lead to an expansion of the power line distribution network, which will probably increase the risk of vulture collisions. 

“The rapid development of wind energy in Southern Africa represents an additional threat to the already fragile populations of African vultures. The distribution of the vulnerable Cape vulture in particular, overlaps considerably with wind energy development areas in South Africa, creating conflicts that can hinder both vulture conservation and sustainable energy development.”

In the past five years, there have been “concerning numbers” of mortalities on wind farms, particularly in the Eastern Cape. Twenty-four Cape vulture and three white-backed vulture deaths at wind farms have been reported to date, including a few electrocutions. 

“When Renewable Energy Development Zones [REDZ] are taken into account, a significant overlap exists between the Cape vulture range and both operational and proposed wind energy facilities, the report states. “There is pressing concern around the potential cumulative impact of wind energy facilities on the Cape vulture population within these areas of overlap.”

This concern is compounded by the recent gazetting and fast-tracking of these renewable energy zone across the country.