International Vulture Awareness Day is a time to not only reflect on the importance of vultures and the essential role they play in a healthy ecosystem, but is also a day to spread awareness and take action.
These misunderstood birds are extremely important members of an ecosystem — flying in from huge distances to pick decaying carcasses clean, thereby helping to prevent disease outbreaks.
A world without these birds would be a foul-smelling place filled with disease and carcasses across our landscape. These species essentially help to maintain the functioning and health of an ecosystem.
The importance of vultures in our ecosystem
Vultures are equipped with a digestive system that contains special acids that are able to dissolve anthrax, botulism and even cholera bacteria. The excess rotting carcasses can result in an increase of scavenging carnivores, both wild and feral, which lead to further consequences caused by an imbalance in the system and the spread of other harmful diseases like rabies.
“The importance of vultures to the ecosystem really cannot be overstated,” says Wildlife ACT Emergency Response Manager, PJ Roberts.
“These critically endangered birds provide an incredible ‘clean-up service’ for the environment. Identifying carcasses from kilometres away, vultures swiftly move in and can finish a carcass in a matter of minutes. By vultures removing decomposing animals from the landscape, humans are ensured a clean environment free of carcass-borne diseases.”
Threats to vultures
Due to their unique habits, vultures face a multitude of threats, which include direct and indirect poisoning, electrocutions and collisions with energy infrastructure, habitat loss, disturbance and the shortage of food.
Throughout Southern Africa, vultures are specifically targeted and poached for belief-based use in the muthi trade. Information about the extent of traditional use of vulture parts is sorely lacking, so research and investigations are required to help inform and implement demand reduction campaigns.
Many cultures have superstitions about vultures, such as the birds being harbingers of death, or mistaken beliefs that vultures are a threat to healthy livestock, and in many areas vultures are still illegally hunted or driven away from food sources.
Accidental poisoning is a further issue, as some medicinal drugs used to treat livestock are fatally toxic to vultures. The birds may also be poached as trophies or for the illegal feather trade.
The Southern African vulture population has been heavily persecuted over the past year with multiple mass poisoning events in Botswana, Kruger and Zululand.
Lead-poisoning has been largely overlooked in the past, but more recently has been identified as a threat to vultures. The irresponsible use of lead-based ammunition results in vultures feeding on contaminated carcasses, consisting of both wild game and domestic animals.
Tiny fragments are ingested, which impact both the nervous and reproductive systems. Birds with lead poisoning will exhibit loss of balance, gasping, tremors and an impaired ability to fly. Emaciation follows and death can occur within two to three weeks after lead ingestion.
As a result of these ongoing threats, many vulture species are now only breeding within protected nature reserves and sightings are becoming more and more of a luxury.
Of the five Savannah species found in South Africa, all are classified as either endangered or critically endangered. Current trends in important sub-populations of these species, such as in KwaZulu-Natal, are indicating that all breeding pairs of white-headed vultures and lappet-faced vultures will be locally extinct within the next few years.
The work being done
Wildlife ACT works closely with partners such as Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, The Endangered Wildlife Trust, BirdLife SA and the National Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries to help protect vultures in South Africa.
Using the latest tracking technologies, Wildlife ACT has enabled the fine-scale monitoring of the birds to accurately identify “vulture hotspots” and thereby ensures that these areas are where conservation energy and mitigation measures are focused.
Annual nest surveys are carried out to monitor breeding success and long-term trends in nesting pair abundance which is used to measure the health of the current populations.
A dedicated fund for emergency response enables an effective rapid response team of technically trained staff with the appropriate equipment. This ensures swift response to any poisoning events and effective scene decontamination which prevents mass mortalities of vultures.
Wildlife ACT continues to build on the gains already made in the hunting industry and maintains the momentum to phase out lead-based firearm ammunition. They work to ensure that, during this phasing out period, the correct and safe disposal of lead-contaminated carcasses takes place, reducing the exposure to vultures. They continue to test lead levels in wild caught individuals to monitor the effectiveness of these mitigation measures and ascertain the extent of compliance with the new regulations.
To date, Wildlife ACT, together with their partners, has fitted over 65 vultures with GPS backpacks/trackers, tagged and sampled over 150 individuals, conducted 36 nest surveys, and successfully released 14 recovered birds.
The implementation of tracking equipment and monitoring protocols for vultures in Zululand, is also helping to discover new potential threats. With new information at hand, targeted outreach and educational initiatives will be implemented by Wildlife ACT and partners to better understand the issue and help shed light on the critical importance of vultures.
Recent poisoning incidents have also led to further dialogue with authorities and will help support the prosecution of those found in the illegal procession of vulture body parts.
Educating and creating awareness among local farmers and communities living near protected areas, as well as the wider public, also forms a huge part of their conservation work. It needs to be understood that the vulture crisis could very well mean a human crisis.
How to help
Vulture conservation is in desperate need of support and is heavily reliant on the public to help spread awareness and to fund the work being done to help save this ecologically-essential species. The technology used is expensive, and funding is needed to purchase more backpacks and other essential equipment.
An emergency response team of conservationists on the ground are the ones saving the lives of any poisoned birds by rapidly responding to any poaching incidents. This requires fuel and equipment in order to operate effectively.
If any tagged vulture is sighted, people are asked to please record the identification number and species (if possible) along with the GPS (or physical) location and take a photograph of the bird with the ID tag displayed if at all possible.