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Dangers high and low for southern Africa’s birds of prey

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We are not doing enough to protect these creatures with whom we share this land.

Picture: Schalk van Zuydam/AP

By Dominic Naidoo

A few months ago, I found myself on the N3, driving towards the northern Drakensberg, not far from the KwaZulu-Natal-Free State border. The owner of our lodge recommended a visit to Falcon Ridge, a raptor rehabilitation centre deep in the Champagne Valley.

The centre rehabilitates injured birds of prey which are found around the greater Drakensberg area and also hosts a riveting raptor educational spectacle using rehabilitated birds to show off their skill, endurance and sheer beauty, as well as to educate people on the many threats facing them.

I knew of a number of challenges facing South Africa’s raptors but was not prepared to learn of the magnitude of threats these magnificent creatures face daily.

Raptors are a group of birds that hunt and feed on small to medium animals such as rabbits, rats, mice, lizards, frogs, other birds, and small deer such as duiker. They have been known to snatch up cats and small dogs as well when wild prey becomes scarce.

BirdLife South Africa says there are 80 known species of raptors in the country, 68 of which hunt during the day, and 12 owl species, which hunt at night. BirdLife SA’s 2018 “State of South Africa’s Birds” report said 22 raptor species are listed as threatened, and six of the 22 are listed as critically endangered. These are the Southern banded snake eagle, Taita falcon, Bearded vulture, Hooded vulture, White-backed vulture and White-headed vulture.

The report noted the worrying decline of scavenger raptors – vultures – not only in South Africa but in Central, West and East Africa too. Southern African vultures are mostly scavengers and do not actively hunt and kill prey. Although their primary diet consists of carrion – the flesh of animals that are already dead – vultures have been known to attack extremely sick or weak animals and feed on stillborn offspring.

Vultures, like most soaring birds, use columns of rising warm air to circle high above an area looking for carrion. They have an extremely sensitive sense of smell and excellent eyesight allowing them to locate a dead animal from over a kilometre away.

Vultures play a vital role in our ecosystems by consuming rotting carcasses. This helps prevent the spread of disease and, when attacking weak or dying individuals, keeps animal populations healthy. They can feed on extremely rancid flesh thanks to powerful stomach acid which kills harmful bacteria.

Vultures face multiple threats in South Africa. These include poaching for the traditional medicine trade, deliberate and indirect poisoning, collisions with electrical towers and cables as well as collisions with motor vehicles when scavenging roadkill.

Although these threats are also faced by almost all birds of prey, vultures are frequent victims of mass poisonings due to the way they feed. Many of these poisonings are committed by wildlife poachers. Poachers shoot and kill big game such as rhino, elephants and buck.

The vultures see the carcass and begin circling overhead, growing in numbers. Game rangers see the vultures circling and approach the scene to investigate. To prevent the vultures from giving away their location, poachers would poison a goat or cow carcass and allow the vultures to feed on it, causing mass deaths.

According to Cape Town bird guide Skhumbuzo Mbewu, there is a general lack of awareness of vultures in townships and most rural areas in South Africa. Some nesting sites close to rural areas are destroyed by youngsters who don’t know about the important role birds play in our ecosystems. “These arise from cultural beliefs, such as owls or vultures being associated with evil.”

Eggs, hatchlings and adult vultures are frequently stolen from nests or shot and killed for the traditional medicine trade.

A 2014 study titled, “The impact of traditional use on vultures in South Africa” said vultures were used in the traditional medicine industry for a range of purposes but were believed “to be most effective for providing clairvoyant powers, foresight and increased intelligence. The main drivers of demand for these uses are betting and gambling, for improved business success, and intelligence in schoolchildren.”

Their flesh is also prescribed by traditional healers for ailments including headaches. “It is estimated that 160 vultures are sold per annum in eastern South Africa, with some 59 000 consumption events of vulture pieces.”

According to a study in a peer-reviewed paper by ecologist Mbali Mashele, vultures play a significant role in the spiritual practices and occult beliefs of various communities in Africa. Mbali and her team interviewed 51 traditional healers and 197 others in nine villages in the Bushbuckridge Local Municipality, near protected areas including Greater Kruger. They found that vulture body parts were commonly used by people hoping to see into the future, appease their ancestors, for good luck and to cure illnesses.

And a September 2020 scholarly paper on vulture poisoning highlighted that vulture poisoning was rife in the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area, a vast area spanning national parks (notably the Kruger) and private and communally owned land in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

The paper, published in the journal “Global Ecology and Conservation”, noted a spike in intentional vulture poisoning and poaching. “Conservation stakeholders have identified evidence that a number of vulture species in particular ecosystems are being systematically targeted by poisoning with potentially significant effects on human, wildlife and ecosystem health,” said Meredith Gore, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, and her co-authors.

Most of these birds are killed using shotguns, poisons or traps. Poisoning is the most destructive and widely used method of harvesting as large numbers of vultures are usually killed in a single poisoning event.

As of 2014, there were an estimated 1 250 vulture traders, hunters and traditional healers in eastern South Africa involved in the illegal vulture trade.

The study authors wrote: “With small vulture populations and poor breeding success, the current trade in vultures is not sustainable at the present harvest levels. The implication for people using or trading in vultures is that the benefits currently enjoyed will not be available in 15 to 30 years’ time.”

For birds of prey more generally, “vehicle collisions and electric fences are two of the main threats” they face, says Pieter Saunders, a colleague of the South African Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

Last week the centre euthanised three Black-shouldered kites and a Pale Chanting Goshawk due to severe collision injuries.

Saunders said that “another issue is people shooting raptors with pellet guns in an attempt to scare them away from chicken farms, pets or garden birds”.

Saunders says the unintentional poisoning of owls seems to be on the increase, with the centre receiving three cases in the past two weeks. These are mainly due to the widespread use of rat poisons commercially and around households.

In addition to the direct impacts of poisoning, owls are also admitted due to secondary impacts resulting from deteriorating health. This includes being hit by cars, flying into structures or being able only to hunt sick or poisoned prey.

Alternatives to rat poison would help conserve as many of these dwindling owl populations as possible. Live-catching rats or mice is the most environmentally friendly method of controlling these pests, which can then be donated to reptiles or raptor sanctuaries.

“Placing T-perches on the boundaries of a property will encourage owls and other birds of prey to hunt on your property. With more suitable hunting sites created this way, there would be fewer raptors crossing busy roads in search of prey. This would lead to a decrease in vehicle collisions.” says Saunders.

Animal scientist Naomi Lupton said on Facebook that some local farmers’ strategies to protect their stock “have had a huge negative impact on birds of prey”. These include barely visible electric fencing and poisons intended to deter predators such as jackals, stray dogs and caracals.

To learn more about how these birds of prey and humans are interacting, I spoke to Crispin Hemson, co-ordinator of Friends of Pigeon Valley, a dedicated group taking care of Pigeon Valley Nature, a small nature reserve at the heart of Glenwood, Durban.

“In some ways, urban areas offer raptors great opportunities,” says Hemson. “For example, the sheer numbers of birds, such as the ubiquitous rock doves, hadedas and vervet monkeys – for Crowned eagles – and the abundant birdlife in many suburban gardens.

“Birds like Lanner falcons and Spotted eagle-owls may thrive. The Black sparrowhawk has adapted well to areas like parks that are not fully natural environments. African Harrier-Hawks have become adept at targeting birds like weavers, which are often numerous in suburbs.

“However, the threats are also significant. A particular danger for owls is the use of rat poison, as rats are among their favourite food and eating a rat that has been poisoned will almost certainly kill the owl.

“Owls in southern Africa have been perceived as bringing bad luck and can be stoned by people. Crowned eagles are under threat as immature eagles, in particular, may take small dogs and cats, and irate pet owners have been known to shoot them.

“We had a local person demanding that a visiting juvenile Crowned eagle be moved elsewhere.

Similarly, Black sparrowhawks, excellent at hunting, sometimes take racing pigeons, which can provoke hostile reactions.”

The bottom line is that we are not doing enough to protect these creatures with whom we share this land. Hordes of European birdwatchers flock to our shores every year just to get a glimpse of these beautiful birds.

Next time you see a bird of prey perching on a street light or power line pole, stop and just admire it for a few minutes. You may not get an opportunity to see it again.

Naidoo is an environmental journalist and activist.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.