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Saving Southern Africa’s Vultures

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Picture: Chris van Rooyen/Taken on April 28, 2005 – Despite their significant importance to our ecosystems, vulture populations are on the decline, with about 50 to 100 breeding pairs of Bearded Vulture remaining in South Africa and Lesotho, and around 4,500 breeding pairs of Cape Vulture remaining in South Africa, the writer says.

By Dominic Naidoo

Just under two years ago, I was part of an investigative team documenting horrific vulture poisoning incidents taking place along KZN’s Southern Drakensberg region. Although a grim reminder of the senseless cruelty endured by our wildlife, the story sparked my interest in vulture conservation.

Wildlife ACT, a conservation NGO, is now drawing attention to and actively addressing the alarming drop in South African vulture populations through their Southern Drakensberg Conservation Project.

The initiative, which forms part of the organisation’s Vulture Conservation Programme, invites volunteers from all around the world who can assist with daily conservation efforts in the Southern Drakensberg region of KwaZulu-Natal.

Despite their significant importance to our ecosystems, vulture populations are on the decline, with about 50 to 100 breeding pairs of Bearded Vulture remaining in South Africa and Lesotho, and around 4,500 breeding pairs of Cape Vulture remaining in South Africa.

This initiative intends to advance regional conservation efforts for endangered and priority wildlife species, with a particular emphasis on the fragile Cape Vulture and the regionally severely endangered Bearded Vulture.

This initiative, made possible by a co-operation between Wildlife ACT, the Drakensberg Conservation Initiative, and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, is part of Wildlife ACT’s continuous efforts to monitor and conserve endangered and priority species, as well as to aid in successful protected area management.

Monitoring vulture nesting sites, managing and maintaining safe vulture feeding locations, performing long-term remote camera trapping studies, and reacting to emergency occurrences such as poaching incidents and human-wildlife conflict are all part of daily conservation work.

Chris Kelly, a long-time ecological activist and co-founder of Wildlife ACT, shares his enthusiasm for the idea.

“We are very excited about the Southern Drakensberg Conservation Project and look forward to focusing some significant energy on the regionally critically endangered Bearded Vulture,” Kelly says.

“Vultures play an important role in maintaining healthy ecosystems, and their extinction is a major concern. We intend to contribute to the protection of these amazing birds in the Southern Drakensberg area.”

The Maloti-Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site, a vital refuge for numerous vulnerable and endangered species, is the setting for the Southern Drakensberg Conservation Project.

The Heritage Site is a massive, protected region that stretches along the border of South Africa and Lesotho, covering approximately 240,000 hectares. This protected geographical area is home to a staggering variety of flora and wildlife, including over 2,000 plant species and a number of rare and endangered animal species.

The Southern Drakensberg Conservation Project is largely focused on vulture conservation, assisting in the protection of South Africa’s two cliff nesting vulture species present in the area, the Bearded Vulture and the Cape Vulture.

The Bearded Vulture is of particular significance for this project due to its severely endangered status on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. The Bearded Vulture has declined dramatically over the last century, leaving just a small local population in the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountain range.

Poisoning, electrocutions and accidents with electricity equipment, habitat degradation, and food shortages are all dangers to vultures.

These birds are not only a significant component of our ecology; they also have a digestive system that includes unique acids that can manage a variety of illnesses that are dangerous to humans, making their preservation critical for disease prevention.

Anel Olivier, Wildlife ACT’s vulture conservation project manager, says that “vultures provide vital ecosystem services in our natural, agricultural, and rural environments”.

“The critical role they play in nutrient cycling through highly efficient disposal of organic waste from the environment is critical to human health and environmental integrity,” Olivier says.

Vultures have evolved to dispose of rotting flesh and bone, as well as other organic waste, minimising disease transmission among wildlife and cattle, as well as the possibility of virus spill-over to people.

Through Wildlife ACT’s voluntourism approach, volunteers from all around the world are welcome to engage in and support this project.

Wildlife ACT offers an innovative voluntourism approach which enables volunteers from all over the world to actively participate in conservation efforts while working with educated experts in order to maintain the work being done at its different initiatives.

The work completed and donations received allow conservation efforts to continue indefinitely. The initiative offers participants a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to receive hands-on experience in vulture conservation.

Volunteers assist the highly skilled conservation staff at Wildlife ACT in monitoring individuals and nests, doing research, managing vulture safe feeding areas, conducting camera trap studies, and much more.

Volunteers reside in a farmhouse in the buffer zone around the Maloti-Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site, surrounded by spectacular landscape, throughout their stay.

“If you’re passionate about conservation and love nature, fresh mountain air, hiking, and birdlife, then you’ll feel right at home,” says Phillip Swart, priority species monitor for the southern Drakensberg.

“We like to stay active in the field while also taking time to appreciate the natural beauty and wildlife around us. We are making a difference for vulture conservation on a worldwide basis, but we need the help of volunteers to keep going.”

The bearded vultures of the Maloti-Drakensberg region prepare to nest as South Africa enters the colder months of the year. As a result, winter is a busy time of year for vulture conservation, and volunteers with the Southern Drakensberg Conservation Project should expect a lot of activity.

Wildlife ACT is optimistic that the breeding season will be a success, and that volunteers will join in to assist, support and preserve this vital conservation effort.

If you think you have what it takes to help save southern Africa’s vultures, you can find out more about the volunteer programme here.

Dominic Naidoo is an environment activist and writer

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.