Vultures form an important ecological component of our natural environment, cleaning up dead carcasses and decreasing the spread of some diseases. The relationship between vultures and people is also a venerable one – vultures played roles in some early societies, including the Egyptian and the Hindu societies; vultures continue to be used as symbols or metaphors in modern societies; and vulture body parts are used in muthi.
Today, vultures face an unprecedented onslaught from human activities. They have to cope with electrocutions and collisions with electrical structures, poisonings, land-use changes, a decrease in food availability and exposure to toxicity through veterinary drugs, to list just a few of some of the challenges facing vultures today.
Vultures, positioned at the top of the food chain, are an indicator of the health of the environment below them – and dependent for their survival on a healthy environment. As such the work of the Vulture Conservation Programme (“VulPro”) is intended and expected to favourably impact on many other aspects of the environment – beyond vultures.
VulPro approaches vulture conservation in an integrated, multidisciplinary fashion, with the benefits from the programme accruing to both vultures and society at large. VulPro combines education and good science, with networking, capacity building and knowledge generation. The veterinary disciplines of toxicology, pharmacology, clinical pathology and medicine are combined with the science of GSM/GPS telemetry and the banking of genetic and DNA resources, with the goal being to positively influence the well-being of our natural resources to ultimately benefit society. In this regard, VulPro engages in a number of interrelated activities, and uses a variety of resources, in endeavouring to meet its objectives.
GPS tracking devises are used to determine foraging and home ranges of a large number of vultures in Southern Africa. The output from this research allows for the monitoring of capture-release free-ranging vultures and for the mapping of areas for further actions (such as community education and the safeguarding of vulture food through the monitoring of vulture restaurants in addition to finding hotspot vulture threat zones).
VulPro conducts and facilitates educational talks and interactions with both tame and wild vultures at the rehabilitation and educational centre in Hartbeespoort, as well as at external, formal and informal venues and with groups of varying demographics, ages, interests and expertise.
Undertaking and publishing studies determining drug residues in carcasses, and lobbying communities and society for appropriate actions to be taken to benefit our natural environment and to ameliorate the effects of drugs on vultures are part of VulPro’s work. This work includes proactive efforts to determine, evaluate and monitor veterinary drugs or chemical residues in carcasses that are made available to vultures; building dedicated laboratory models for predicting avian toxicity; using mass awareness campaigns to involve and get feed-back from the public; determining the home ranges of vultures, so as to better understand their foraging habits; and collecting appropriate biological samples for current and future project use.
Through partners, such as the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria, potential harmful veterinary substances similar to diclofenac, can be identified and monitored. Where necessary, VulPro can engage in or support lobbying for the removal or responsible use of these substances.
With the many threats vultures are facing throughout southern Africa, vulture rehabilitation has become an essential part of VulPro’s work. Collecting grounded, injured, poisoned and disabled vultures around South Africa, special emphasis within the Gauteng, North West, Limpopo, Free State, Eastern Cape and the Northern Cape Provinces, VulPro is able to save many vultures that would otherwise have met their untimely deaths. By doing this, VulPro is in a position to release those vultures that are able, fit and healthy and to keep those that cannot be released in captivity for breeding, research and educational purposes. Vulture populations are, in many instances, so depleted that the rehabilitation and release of individual birds can be ecologically and genetically significant.
This multidisciplinary and networking programme looks at conservation holistically, by focusing on the vulture at the top of the food chain and gaining new knowledge on the environment below and so also impacting on society well-being.