Video: Vultures can thrive here

Henry

Vultures right across Africa are facing a real danger of extinction. That is why Vulpro, a vulture conservation organization in South Africa, has been working for the past 17 years to preserve these magnificent birds.

Kerri Wolter, CEO of Vulpro, says Africa is facing a serious vulture crisis and human intervention is the only possible solution to prevent the total extinction of some species. Vulpro is the only conservation organization of its kind on the continent.

RNews earlier reported that the largest relocation of vultures in Africa was successfully completed last Monday after 163 cliff and white-backed vultures were moved from Vulpro’s reserve in Hartbeespoort to the Shamwari private game reserve near Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) in the Eastern Cape.

According to Wolter, the African vulture species has declined by 97% in the last 30 years. “This means that South Africa could lose some of its native vulture species – in our lifetime.”

“The crested vulture has already died out as a breeding species in Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

“The Egyptian vulture has died out as a breeding species in South Africa and the white-backed vulture numbers in the Kruger National Park are declining drastically.

“If the poisoning incidents that we have increasingly seen in South Africa over the past year continue, white-backed vultures could also become extinct in the next four to five years. Total eradication is therefore a real challenge,” says Wolter.

Vulpro mainly works with vultures that have collided with power lines and sustained serious injuries.

“We probably deal with five or six power line incidents on a weekly basis. About 90% of the birds that end up at Vulpro are due to serious injuries from power line collisions. These birds have unfortunately lost their wings, which means they can never be released back into the wild.”

According to Wolter, poisoning incidents are not as abundant as power line incidents, “but if you have a poisoning incident, the result is catastrophic due to the number of vultures affected by the incident”.

“One poisoning incident can wipe out an entire vulture colony. This is the biggest threat to vultures in Africa and on a global scale,” she says.

According to Wolter, the use of vultures for faith-based purposes or for making “moetie” is another big threat.

“In East and West Africa, vulture numbers are drastically decreasing due to the use of vultures for faith-based purposes.

“At Vulpro we see this on a weekly basis, we carry out extensive operations and have already saved quite a few vultures from mole trade.”

Dr. Johan Joubert, veterinarian at Shamwari, emphasized how important vultures are to the ecosystem.

“Vultures provide essential ecosystem services in our natural, agricultural and rural environments.

“The important role they play in the cycle of nutrients – through the highly efficient disposal of organic waste from the environment – is of the utmost importance for human health and environmental integrity.”

Joubert says vultures are the only scavengers that feed in such large numbers, and each vulture species serves a unique feeding function. “They were made to get rid of rotting meat and bone, as well as other organic waste. In this way, they reduce the spread of diseases among wildlife and livestock, as well as the risk of disease spreading to humans.”

Move carefully planned

Moving the vultures involved more than 50 people and lasted a total of 18 hours. The logistics company DHL provided transport and security, while the non-governmental organization WeWild Africa provided 163 individual transport crates for the birds.

Theo Fourie, director of security at DHL, says they didn’t even think twice when Wolter approached them about the giant relocation of the vultures.

“I immediately said yes, even though I wasn’t even sure if we would be able to take on the project. I just knew it was something we had to be a part of.

“Special trucks have been identified to transport the 163 vultures for almost 1,050 km. Ventilation was a big factor and we had to make sure that the birds were not transported in hot conditions.

The convoy left Vulpro in Hartebeespoort Dam at around 17:15 on Sunday and arrived at the Shamwari private game reserve at around 12:30 on Monday afternoon.

Two veterinarians, prof. Katja Koeppel from the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, and dr. Johan Joubert, veterinarian at Shamwari, managed the welfare of the birds during the relocation. “We stopped every three hours during which each individual vulture was thoroughly examined by the vets to watch for stress-related or any other complications.

“All 163 vultures arrived safely at their new home, and for us it was an absolute honor to be part of this.”

According to Joubert, there were many issues to consider when the decision was made to relocate the birds. “Among other things, we had to decide to do it before the next breeding season, and the time was quite limited.

“We had to build these camps in a very short period of time, but thanks to Francois Wehmeyer, the camps were built in just two months and over the festive period.” Wehmeyer is the contractor appointed to assemble the enclosures for the project at the Shamwari private game reserve.

Wolter already moved to the Eastern Cape in December last year “to be permanently with her birds and to continue the work she started in Hartebeespoort at Vulpro in Shamwari”.

She says one of the reasons why this major relocation and expansion of Vulpro from the North West to the Eastern Cape had to be undertaken is to prevent the birds from being poached directly at their facilities in Hartebeespoort Dam.

“Our facility in Hartebeespoort is surrounded by low-cost housing schemes and the community is constantly expanding. Residents are well aware of the number of individual vultures that are housed there. We couldn’t keep all our eggs in one basket.”