/ 24 January 2024

South Africa’s largest vulture relocation project hailed as a success

African White Backed Vultures (gyps Africanus) And Lappet Faced Vulture
The initial phase of a groundbreaking effort to relocate wild Cape and African white-backed vultures (above) in Southern Africa has seen remarkable success.(Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The initial phase of a groundbreaking effort to relocate wild Cape and African white-backed vultures in Southern Africa has seen remarkable success.  

The largest relocation of vultures project in South Africa aimed at safeguarding the future of these species was a well-coordinated effort involving more than 50 individuals and over a period of 18 hours.

A total of 160 Cape and African white-backed vultures have found their new home at Shamwari Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape. The idea is for the facility to breed the birds as well as care for sick or injured vultures that have been rehabilitated but can not be released.

Joe Cloete, chief executive of Shamwari, emphasises the monumental scope of this conservation initiative: 

“To put it in perspective in conservation terms, I consider this as significant as relocating 160 rhinos. Vultures are vital for a healthy ecosystem and are severely threatened. I cannot overstate how reintroducing Cape Vultures to Shamwari is crucial to our conservation journey and enhancing the ecological importance of the reserve and the Eastern Cape.” 

The relocation went off impressively — all 160 birds were efficiently loaded within just three hours, thanks to the support of logistics company DHL and the expertise of WeWild Africa, an NGO specialising in animal rewilding and translocation.

Overseeing the welfare of the birds during this critical operation was Professor Katja Koeppel of Wildlife Health at the University of Pretoria, with support from Dr. Johan Joubert of the reserve. 

Their collective efforts contributed significantly to the overall success of the endeavour.

Kerri Wolter, chief executive of VulPro a group looking to protect vultures, said the positive effect of the custom breeding facility established at Shamwari on vulture conservation initiatives was crucial. 

“VulPro at Shamwari creates a secure and harmonious ecosystem for our in-situ and ex-situ conservation programmes, offering financial support and ensuring sustainability. Critically, it mitigates risk by avoiding the concentration of the largest captive breeding population of vultures in a single location. Moreover, Shamwari’s anti-poaching unit contributes to excellent security,” Wolter said.

“[Vultures’] absence can lead to prolonged exposure of carcasses in the wild, resulting in the accumulation of diseases that can impact various species. 

Human settlements also benefit significantly from vultures’ cleanup efforts, especially in areas with a reliance on nature for basic needs such as food and water, as well as subsistence livestock farmers.

Vultures have experienced a severe decline over the past three decades due to various threats, including poisoning for belief-based use, collisions with energy infrastructure, and habitat loss.

The VulPro facility at Shamwari comprises three enclosures catering to the specific needs of vultures.

One enclosure focuses on badly injured birds requiring constant attention, situated away from public view near the veterinary hospital. 

Another feature is an artificial cliff for optimal breeding conditions. The third serves as a pre-release enclosure on high ground within the reserve, facilitating the release of healthy, young Cape vultures.

A subsequent phase later this year will involve relocating breeding pairs of non-releasable Lappet-faced, white-headed, and hooded vultures, along with additional white-backed vultures. 

This effort aligns with Shamwari’s commitment to restoring the indigenous fauna and flora across its 250㎢ reserve to its original state.

The Cape vulture offspring will be released at another site and will be tagged with tracking devices, contributing valuable data for ongoing conservation efforts. 

This ambitious project marks a significant step forward in preserving the biodiversity and ecological balance of the region.