Vulture ambulance to the rescue

Henry

Thanks to an ambulance specially equipped to transport vultures, eight vultures in the Greater Kruger area were rescued after being poisoned.

The vultures were recently released back into the wild after an intensive two weeks of treatment.

Dr. Gareth Tate, program manager of birds of prey at the Trust for Endangered Wildlife, says the vultures – six white-backed vultures, a black vulture and a monk vulture – were poisoned on Youth Day.

The trust’s Lowveld team, John Davies and Dr. Lindy Thomson, was informed about the poisoning shortly before 15:00 and arrived at the scene with the specialized ambulance shortly before sunset.

They came across one vulture that had already died and two more white-backed vultures that were in a critical condition.

“The team loaded the two vultures into the ambulance and rushed to the Moholoholo rehabilitation center in Limpopo,” he says.

“Determined that there were more vultures to save, Davies and Thomson returned in the ambulance at 04:00 the next day and together with SANParks rangers, Dr. Joel Alves and Isabella Gr├╝nberger, combed the area for six hours.”

The team finally came across six more vultures deep in the forest and had to carry them three kilometers away to the waiting ambulance. The vultures were in critical condition, but at least they were still alive.

However, a total of 45 other vultures, an eagle, a lion and three lion cubs did not survive the poisoning.

The remaining vultures were also rushed to the Moholoholo Rehabilitation Center and were treated with the other vultures for two weeks.

Before they were released on Saturday, they were fitted with rings and solar-powered GPS tracking devices which allow the trust to monitor the vultures’ movements and respond to any unusual behaviour.

Quick response essential

Wildlife is being poisoned more and more frequently in the Limpopo transboundary conservation area, and the trust recently decided to develop a custom vulture ambulance to ensure the successful rescue, treatment and safe transport of the wild birds.

Since animals are often poisoned in remote areas, far from rehabilitation centers, this ambulance is an essential resource.

When specialists arrive at the scene of a poisoning, first aid must be applied immediately to stabilize the surviving birds.

According to Tate, members of the raptor program’s Lowveld Team are always equipped with a poisoning response kit to apply basic treatment to animals.

“This gives vultures that have been poisoned a chance of survival until a vet can treat them properly,” he says.

The birds then need a cool, quiet place to rest while they are taken to a rehabilitation center, which can often be more than an eight-hour journey from the poisoning sites.

“In some cases teams have to spend the night in the field, which makes the ambulance even more vital as it allows them to keep a close eye on the condition of vultures and keep them stable.”

The trust’s specialized vulture ambulance can transport up to 20 birds in their own crates which are easily accessible without disturbing other birds.

The trailer includes a mobile clinic, first aid station, water, fuel and equipment needed to quickly and easily stabilise, treat and transport poisoned birds.

“The ambulance has already proven that it significantly increases the number of birds that can be saved during a poisoning,” says Tate.

“The vulture ambulance was strategically placed in a high-poisoning risk area to save more birds. The hope is to eventually develop more ambulances so that they can be placed in other key areas to save even more vultures.”

Since January 2019, almost 800 vultures, which include five endangered species, have been poisoned in the Limpopo transboundary conservation area.

“In this area, vultures are often poisoned so that their body parts can be used for traditional medicine,” says Tate.

“They are also often the unintended victims of poisoning, as they feed on the carcasses of other wildlife such as lions, hyenas and leopards that have been poisoned because they threaten local livestock, or are also used for traditional medicine.”