Vulture Safe Zone

Vultures play a critical role in the ecosystem as they are responsible for removing a large portion of carrion in Africa, which likely helps to prevent the spread of important zoonotic diseases such as rabies and anthrax. Vultures also play an important role in nutrient cycling, and they are important for many African cultures, as well as having economic importance for tourism.

Over the last 30 years, Africa has seen a drastic decline in the population numbers of 5 species to such a point that they have been declared Critically Endangered, whilst others are considered Endangered.

Most African vulture populations are in rapid decline, largely due to poisoning, killing/capture for cultural beliefs (the trade in vulture body parts for use in traditional medicine), and electrical infrastructure (collisions and electrocutions on powerlines, and collisions with wind turbines).

Cited in Thompson and Blackmore, 2020

The EWT’s Birds of Prey Programme (BOPP) Vulture Safe Zone project is endeavouring to create Vulture Safe Zones in both the Lowveld and the Karoo. Their research will cover a large area that is vital for nesting and foraging for vultures. Keeping in mind that vultures have very large home-ranges, the vultures we are seeing on Selati could come from as far away as KZN, Eswatini, Namibia, Botswana or Zimbabwe!  The Vulture Safe Zones aim to remove the threats to vultures in these areas. In the Lowveld, which is a vulture poisoning hotspot (Gore, Hubschle, Botha, et al, 2020), we are focusing on the threat of poisoning.

Sixteen Selati staff members attended a Poison Intervention Training course held at Selati Head Quarters on 13 April 2021, to learn about why people use poison, as well as the risks of poison, the signs of poisoning in mammals and birds, and what to do if they find a wildlife poisoning scene. EWT staff hope to do refresher courses at Selati each year, to keep the signs of poisoning in mammals and birds, and the risks of poisoning, fresh in people’s minds. Furthermore, Selati’s Operations Manager, Lindsey Jones, is also currently doing her post-graduate studies in Monitoring and Evaluation on the effectiveness of this training in the Lowveld.

Other causes of death include Hooded Vultures being killed at a pig farm near Phalaborwa (we think this is due to competition for food with baboons), and Hooded and White-backed Vultures being killed by captive predators at tourist facilities (Thompson, Davies, Tate, et al, 2020). 

The reserve has a vulture restaurant which was initiated on Farm Josephine in 1987, prior to the reserves inception in 1993. Research has shown that vulture restaurants form a good source of “safe” food for the vultures, but this doesn’t mean they won’t find carrion elsewhere that could be tainted with fragments of lead from lead ammunition, or with pharmaceuticals such as NSAIDs, or drugs used to anaesthetize or euthanise animals. The vulture restaurant also provides a good area for research and tagging of vultures which provides valuable information on vulture movement and causes of mortality.

Vultures observed on Selati include: The Hooded, White-backed, Cape, White-headed and Lappet-faced. All of these (apart from the Cape) are tree-nesting vultures, while the Cape Vulture nests on cliffs, e.g. at colonies such as nearby Manoutsa (https://www.sa-venues.com/attractionslm/manoutsa-vulture-colony.php) and Blouberg Nature Reserve (https://www.bloubergreserve.co.za/about/wildlife.html)  (Limpopo).

The reserve is keen to become part of the Lowveld Vulture Safe Zone, and will soon undergo Phase I, which involves completing a questionnaire covering potential threats to vultures on the property. Whist Phase II will involve reducing (or ideally removing) any threats to vultures on the reserve.

References and additional reading material on vultures