The Status of African Vultures
In 2015, the IUCN Conservation Status of several species were ‘uplisted’ based on their rate of decline. African vultures are facing several threats, making their conservation not a simple task. Poisoning incidences seem to be on the rise, or at least are much more regularly reported. Poisonings occur from a few means – poachers lace elephant or rhino carcasses to intentionally kill vultures and as scavengers vultures inevitably ingest any poison implemented to kill other animals (either ‘problem’ animals like jackals or leopards) or prized animals targeted by poachers. While a single poisoned elephant can kill hundreds of vultures, wiping out an entire colony or local population, power line electrocutions and collisions are the most profuse threats to vultures in South Africa. The power line grid is expansive and often structures are out of date and unsafe for the large birds to perch. Superstitious beliefs are prominent, creating a demand for vulture parts, especially the head (brains, eyes) and feet, in the establishment of luck and forecasting the outcomes of events like soccer matches. As humans have expanded over the South African landscape, carcasses from natural deaths are sparse, prompting the creation of over 250 vulture restaurants over Southern Africa. These sites provision food specifically for vulture populations mostly from pig and cattle farm mortalities. These sites are strictly managed as some Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) used on cattle can be, even in small amounts, lethal to vultures. Diclofenac in particular (Voltaren for people) caused the deaths of millions of vultures on the Indian Subcontinent in the early 2000’s.
VulPro focuses its efforts on the most prominent species in the region (first 5 listed below) but aims to impact all 9 African species:
Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres) – Endangered
African White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus) – Critically Endangered
Lappet faced Vulture (Torgos tracheliotos) – Endangered
Hooded Vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus)- Critically Endangered
White headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) – Critically Endangered
Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) – Near Threatened (globally), Critically Endangered (in southern Africa)
Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) – Endangered (globally), Extinct (in southern Africa)
Palm Nut Vulture (Gypohierax angolensis) – Least Concern (globally), peripheral species in southern Africa
Rüppells Vulture (Gyps rueppellii) – Critically Endangered
VulPro is proud to partner with SAVE Project (Saving Asian Vultures from Extinction) and the University of Pretoria Faculty of Veterinary Sciences. Through pharmacological research conducted at VulPro with non-releasable African White-backed and Cape Vultures, the toxicity of the drug Diclofenac was confirmed, providing data which facilitated the drug’s legislative ban in several countries and continents. Through similar trials, Meloxicam, also known as Metacam, was determined to be the only known truly vulture-safe alternative NSAID. VulPro has also been instrumental in aiding toxicological research of Ketaprofen, Carprofuren, Flunixin, and Phenalbutazone.
The Cape Vulture has been the recipient of much conservation action, yet it is still declining. Our monitoring programme notes population changes in a standardized way so that counts can be compared across colonies and time and helps to identify and mitigate potential threats impacting vultures in the region. VulPro focuses on several of the Cape Vulture colonies closest to the rehabilitation centre, as well as populations of African White-backed and Hooded Vulture in Olifants River Private Nature Reserve.
There are three important elements of monitoring a Cape Vulture breeding colony: documenting its physical characteristics, estimating the number of breeding pairs, and estimating a number of demographic parameters the most important of which is breeding success.
Over 90 individual birds have been fitted with GSM/GPS tracking devices, most devices provided by Cellular Tracking Technologies. These devices have been fit on Cape, African White-backed, Hooded, and Lappet-faced Vultures to provide data on the species’ ranging behaviours. This data is then used to identify “hot spots” for mitigation of dangerous power lines, identify active or popular feeding and bathing sites, and occasionally identify the cause of mortalities.
In an effort to decrease the continual loss of birds, VulPro rehabilitates injured vultures with the goal always being to release every able bodied individual to the wild. In 2015 alone, 71 vultures were collected for treatment with 21 successfully released by the end of 2015 (see our Annual Report for more details). Most of our rehabilitation occurs at our rehabilitation and breeding centre in North West Province. Kate Webster manages a rehabilitation unit, based out of her family farm in the Eastern Cape Province, where she cares for injured vultures in the region before either releasing them or sending them to the centre for further treatment or housing.
We collect injured or grounded birds from every corner of southern Africa and train other organizations and individuals in emergency vulture care. Our busiest rehab season is December through February when fledgling Cape Vultures from nearby colonies are learning how to fly, forage, and compete with experienced adults at carcasses. Often young vultures are found wandering on the ground, starving, and unable to find appropriate take off sites to utilize wind currents and thermal updrafts. They simply require food and time to gain their strength and improve body condition before they can be released again. Occasionally the young birds are so emaciated they require more intensive care.
Our rehabilitation centre has expanded drastically over the last few years with an influx of birds irreparably damaged by power line collisions and electrocutions – by far the biggest threat to the birds in the Magaliesberg region. Vultures are incredibly resilient and can survive for weeks while grounded with broken wings. Unfortunately, the majority of these injuries are too severe or found too late to save the limb. Veterinarians at Ondersterpoort (University of Pretoria, Faculty of veterinary sciences) routinely assist with amputations and other surgical procedures. We currently house over 145 birds, the majority of which are non-releasable.
Conservation breeding and reintroductions
VulPro’s conservation breeding programme began in 2011 with a small Cape Vulture colony and one incubator. As our captive non-releasable population continues to expand and mature, our breeding programme has seen a dramatic increase. All off offspring are released to the wild; VulPro does not place any individuals in the animal trade and does not believe in transferring them to other Zoos or educational institutions. In this way, we allow non-releasable birds to contribute to the wild populations. Our breeding programme now houses pairs of Cape Vultures, African White-backed Vultures, Lappet faced Vultures, and White-headed Vultures. Our Cape Vulture colony is the most successful species housed on the property. In 2015 the colony successfully raised 5 chicks without human contact.
Conservation breeding and reintroduction programmes have been successfully implemented for several European vulture species (Eurasian Griffon Vulture, Bearded Vulture, Cinereous Vulture, Egyptian Vulture) all over Europe and are in progress for Asian species (Long-billed Vulture, Slender-billed Vulture, Oriental White-backed Vulture) in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. The need for these programmes in Africa is immense; however, VulPro is the only breeding facility on the continent committed to releasing offspring to the wild. We work to annually improve our protocols increasing our efficiency and success, as well as share our protocols with other organizations to benefit vultures continent-wide. While the programme started as a small endeavour, we now have world-class incubation facilities which care for up to 20 eggs a year. Ideally, each of our breeding pairs would be allowed to incubate, hatch, and raise their own chicks, yet for some pairs this is not possible. Every year some chicks are hand-raised and returned to the parents around 3 weeks old at which time the pair takes over all responsibilities.
The first ten chicks in the programme were released in February 2015 at VulPro’s breeding facility in the Magaliesberg Mountains to supplement the local wild population. Three of these chicks were raised at the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria, while seven were raised at VuPro. Every chick was fitted with patagial wing tags and GPS tracking devices. Due to the habitual food supply at VulPro’s vulture restaurant, none of the chicks have left the release site. They make short excursions (less than 8km and/or less than 4 days) off the property, but have yet to forage further afield. We are currently in the process of conducting habitat viability analyses for several sites across multiple provinces in South Africa in order to determine the best place for reintroductions.