December to March is the vulture fledgling season when young vultures leave the nest for their maiden flight. Although the incidence of vultures going down is not limited to this time of the year, they are much more common now.
Vulture populations are threatened by a lack of available food and water, by habitat loss, by natural enemies and by extreme weather. “One of the greatest man-made threats to vultures are power lines. Power line collisions cause approximately 350 vulture fatalities a year,” says Kerri Wolter of VulPro, the leading Vulture conservation programme in SA. Farmers with power lines on their farms should be on the lookout for fallen vultures, year-round, Kerrie adds. Click here to read more about this.
Vultures are highly endangered, and every effort made to stop the drop in vulture population numbers is worthwhile. “Many of the vulture species have been uplisted to the highest protection a species can get. Cape Vultures have been uplisted to endangered status, the African White-backed Vulture to critically endangered status and Lappet-faced Vultures to endangered status,” says Kerrie. “This is why it is very important to know what to do if you come across a vulture that has gone down on your property.”
What to do
There are only a few reputable vulture conservation organisations and facilities in South Africa. Do not try and save a vulture that has gone down without contacting an expert at one of these centres.
“When you come across a vulture that has gone down, the first rule is never to leave the animal alone,” Kerrie says. Make a call to find out whether it is best to stay with the animal until help arrives, or whether you can pick it up and take it to the nearest point of help. “Anyone from anywhere in the country can contact me when they come across a vulture that has gone down. Phone 082 808 5113 or 084 898 4659,” says Kerri.
Kerri explains that an injured or emaciated vulture’s first instinct is to flee. “if you leave it be, it will most probably disappear, and if we cannot find it we cannot help it. The vulture may also die before you reach it again or fall prey to a natural enemy.”
It is important to help the vulture in the correct way. “My advice when I receive a call is to ask the person to send me a picture or video of the bird. This allows us to give the best possible advice. Whether it is necessary to feed the bird and give it water, whether it should be taken in, or whether a limb should be secured. Myself, or a member of my staff, will travel anywhere in the country to pick up a bird, just give us a call and we will be there as soon as possible.”
Kerrie stresses the importance of making contact with an expert. “Remember, they are unlike any other bird and shouldn’t be treated as raptors. Vultures are quite easy to handle, as they can tolerate high stress, but there are a few basic things that you must understand and do right.” Administering the wrong food, or pain killers that could be toxic to the bird, can be harmful.
Kerri explains that food shortage is a serious limiting factor for vultures globally, an issue that is worsened by drought conditions. “This problem can be mitigated effectively by putting out safe and healthy food for vultures at so-called vulture restaurants. Vulture restaurants can alleviate the food shortage for vultures to a large extent and has done so in the past.” Once again, it is critical that this is done in consultation with an expert and in the correct manner.
Kerri shares a few guidelines to bear in mind when setting up a vulture restaurant:
- Game and livestock that have died of natural causes (including disease but excluding anthrax) are suitable food for vultures. Large animals, from sheep and springbok upwards, are the best food options as bigger carcasses attract vultures more readily than small animal carcasses.
- Farm animals treated with any anti-inflammatory drugs may not be offered as vulture food. Most non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are very toxic to vultures.
- In livestock that have been treated with antimicrobials (antibiotics) such as tetracyclines (oxytetracycline for example) it is best to remove and bury the intestines and to cut out the tissue where the drug was injected.
- Livestock treated with ectoparasiticides (pour-ons or dips) should be skinned and the skins buried before the carcasses are offered as vulture food. Animals treated with any abamectin endectocides or ectoparasiticides must also be skinned and intestines must be removed.
- Animals hunted and killed with lead core bullets are dangerous to vultures as lead ingestion is toxic to these birds. If the animal has been shot in the shoulder, or behind the shoulder, only the hind quarters are fit for vulture food. Hunters who are willing to contribute carcasses should call Dr Gerhard Verdoorn on 082 446 8946 for advice on how to best deal with a carcass for vultures.
- When full carcasses are available it is advisable to cut the skin open to allow vultures access to the muscle tissue.
- No poultry may be used as vulture food as Newcastle disease (Paramyxovirus) and avian influenzas will affect vultures.
Vulture monitoring is an important part of vulture conservation. During 2018, VulPro continued with the annual surveys of six Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres) breeding colonies as well as six sites of African White-backed (Gyps africanus) and Hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus) tree-nesting clusters. This is according to the organisation’s latest official monitoring report.
Based on the surveys, the organisation reported that Cape Vulture colonies show an overall rise in breeding activity over the last eight years. A total of 2 177 pairs were observed this year on the first survey compared to 2 052 observed in 2017. However, there were massive declines in breeding success at most of the colonies which is a sure sign of what we are currently seeing with the number of grounded vultures coming in. There were also some colonies that showed serious declines. African White-backed Vulture Breeding Surveys showed that the number of breeding pairs has declined this year from 2017 figures at some of the unprotected sites, but there are significant increases at the protected survey sites.
Kerri says it is vital that vulture conservation activities across the country and the continent are coordinated. “If you, for example, realise that there might be a feeding or breeding site on your farm, report this to a relevant vulture conservation organisation, so that the site can be monitored. We also ask people to report all sightings of marked birds in order to make the monitoring of the birds easier and to get buy-in from the public and make use of citizen scientists.”
The most important contribution the public can make, says Kerri, is to educate their peers on the importance of vultures, share factual knowledge about the birds and try to change people’s attitudes towards vultures. “It is a fact that people put more effort into saving animals they like. We often hear negative reaction when speaking about vultures, such as that they are ugly and dirty animals. This perception must be changed if we want to save vultures.”
Members of the public can get involved in vulture conservation by donating to VulPro financially or with in-kind goods. “We especially need volunteers for population monitoring and surveys, power line surveys and day-to-day work at the vulture facility in Hartbeespoort,” says Kerri.
“Farmers definitely have an important role to play in vulture conservation.” They can assist in monitoring populations and reporting grounded vultures; they keep the environment safe for vultures, and they can also ensure that there is enough food and water for vultures in the system, Kerrie explains. “Allow fatalities on your farm to be used at a vulture restaurant or leave it in the field to be consumed by vultures. Don’t let anything go to waste.”
“The chance of losing our vultures in our lifetime is very real and times will only get tougher. If we can work together for a common goal with landowners and companies like Eskom to save these birds, we can make a difference. I believe this is the future of vulture conservation.” – Marike Brits, AgriOrbit