Vultures in Peril

Vultures are a characteristic and important part of Africa’s ecosystems. As obligate scavengers, they play an important role in preventing the spread of disease, by quickly removing decomposing carcasses from the environment. Recent decades have seen an alarming decline in Africa’s vulture populations, with three of South Africa’s eight vulture species (including the once-prolific White-backed Vulture) now regarded as globally Critically Endangered.

The most familiar vulture species in South Africa are:*

*Rüppell’s (Critically Endangered) and Egyptian (Endangered) vultures are both vagrants to the region. (Images: Chris van Rooyen).

The reasons for the decline of Africa’s vultures are numerous and complex. Poachers kill great numbers of vultures by intentionally lacing poached animal carcasses with poison. Vultures are also vulnerable to secondary poisoning by the veterinary drug diclofenac, or unintentional poisoning through the ingestion of fragments of lead ammunition. Other threats include electrocution and/or collisions with power infrastructure, declining food availability, habitat loss and harvesting for belief-based use.

Through its lead project and the implementation of Vulture Safe Zones, BirdLife South Africa is committed to the conservation of southern Africa’s vultures and have joined multiple stakeholders to restore our vulture populations to their former levels.

For more information on BirdLife South Africa’s Vulture Project, please contact Linda van den Heever (Vulture Project Manager) at linda.vdheever@birdlife.org.za, or +27 (82) 331 3902.

BirdLife South Africa’s Vulture Project is made possible through the generous support of the following donors:

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Vultures and Lead

Lead is a toxic heavy metal that serves no known biological function in any living organism. Its usefulness and malleability as a metal has made it pervasive in many aspects of human society and industry, from the ammunition in our rifles to the batteries that drive our cars. Remarkably, its popularity persists, despite the fact that its harmful effects on human and animal health have been documented since Roman times.

Modern research has linked lead to decreased intelligence, hearing loss, hyperactivity and, most recently, to aggression and violent behaviour. In birds lead exposure has been shown to effect most of the important biological pathways, including the cardiovascular, renal, hematopoietic (relating to the creation of new red blood cells), gastrointestinal, reproductive and nervous systems. Even low-level chronic exposure could result in animals that may be less fit and more prone to weakness, starvation, impaired neurological function, lower reproductive capability and even mortality. Scavengers, apex predators and waterbirds are particularly at risk, as they are more likely to be exposed to anthropogenic sources of lead such as lead shot and other spent ammunition.

As obligate scavengers, vultures are especially susceptible to dietary toxins, and are now regarded as one of the most threatened functional guilds in the world. In view of this, BirdLife South Africa has launched a project that would entail a systematic, nationwide assessment of the levels of lead toxicosis in South Africa’s birds in general, and in scavenging raptors in particular.

BirdLife South Africa’s Lead Project

Lead Project

The problem with lead

Lead is a toxic heavy metal that serves no known biological function in any living organism. Its usefulness and malleability as a metal has made it pervasive in many aspects of human society and industry, from the ammunition in our rifles to the batteries that drive our cars. Remarkably, its popularity persists, even though its harmful effects on human and animal health have been documented since Roman times. With the exception of lead ammunition, most uses of lead are now heavily regulated.

Modern research has linked lead to decreased intelligence, hearing loss, hyperactivity and, most recently, to aggression and violent behaviour in humans. In birds, it has been shown to affect most of the important biological pathways, including the cardiovascular, renal, hematopoietic (relating to the creation of new red blood cells), gastrointestinal, reproductive and nervous systems. Even low-level chronic exposure could result in animals that may be less fit and more prone to weakness, starvation, impaired neurological function, lower reproductive capability and even mortality. Scavengers, apex predators and waterbirds are particularly at risk, as they are more likely to be exposed to anthropogenic sources of lead such as lead shot and other spent ammunition.

Lead poisoning in vultures

As obligate scavengers (i.e. animals that rely almost exclusively on dead animals as a source of food), vultures are especially susceptible to dietary toxins. Vultures obtain fragments of lead by feeding on the carcasses or gut piles of animals that have been shot with lead ammunition. These fragments are obtained from supplementary feeding sites (so-called “vulture restaurants”) when carcasses are put out that are not properly vetted, from informal vulture restaurants on hunting farms (when entrails or flesh removed around the wound channel are made available to scavengers), from culling operations (when carcasses, with the best of intentions, are left in the field for scavengers to dispose of) and, to a lesser extent, from hunting operations (when wounded animals are not recovered).

Springbok shot with .303 (left) and .243 Win (right) lead core bullets illustrate the level to which a lead bullet fragments once it hits its target. Vultures ingest these fragments when they feed on the carcasses or gut piles of animals shot with lead ammunition.

Resolution 11.15 (Preventing Poisoning of Migratory Birds) of the Convention on Migratory Species (UNEP/CMS COP11 – Quito, 2014), of which South Africa is a signatory, calls for the phasing-out of the use of lead ammunition across all habitats, or its replacement with suitable alternatives. Subsequent to the acceptance of this resolution BirdLife South Africa launched a project to determine the prevalence of lead poisoning in a wide range of South African bird species, especially Gyps vultures, and, through the use of lead isotopes, to discover the probable source of the lead poisoning.

Research

BirdLife South Africa’s investigation into the lead levels found in South Africa’s Gyps vultures found that, unlike non-scavenging raptors and other large terrestrial species, South Africa’s Gyps vultures (which includes the Cape and White-backed vulture) are facing unusually high exposure to lead poisoning. Indications are that the birds are exposed to fragments of lead.

The next phase of the lead project is now focused on using lead isotopes to find the source of the lead poisoning in South Africa’s vultures. In collaboration with Dr Linda Iaccheri (from the Wits Geosciences Laboratory) and Prof. Marlina Elburg (a geoscientist from the University of Johannesburg), lead found in vulture blood (sourced near Kimberley) was isolated and, using an advanced technique known as MC-ICP-MS, split into its constituent isotopes 204Pb, 206Pb, 207Pb and 208Pb. It is hoped that the unique ratios of these isotopes will pinpoint the source of the lead poisoning. Research into the physiological impacts of lead poisoning on White-backed Vulture chicks have, for the first, time described the impact lead is having on the chicks’ ability to manufacture haemoglobin. In October 2020 BirdLife South Africa fitted GPS transmitters to five White-backed Vulture chicks at Dronfield Nature Reserve. The purpose of the study is to determine the impact lead is having on the chicks’ survival rates and foraging success once they fledge as juveniles.

BirdLife South Africa is investigating the impact lead poisoning may have on White-backed Vulture chicks.

Engagement and the national Lead Task Team

Since 2016 BirdLife South Africa has been actively engaging with members of South Africa’s shooting community to find a constructive solution to the problem of lead poisoning in vultures. Linda van den Heever (Vulture Project Manager) represents BirdLife South Africa on the national Lead Task Team (a working sub-group of the National Wildlife Poisoning Prevention Working Group), with the main aim to minimise the risk of lead poisoning to all wildlife, including vultures.

If you would like to learn more about BirdLife South Africa’s lead project, or about lead poisoning in vultures in general, please contact Linda van den Heever (Vulture Project Manager) at linda.vdheever@birdlife.org.za, or +27 (82) 331 3902.

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In October 2017 the Multi-species Action Plan to Conserve African-Eurasian Vultures (MsAP) was accepted by the 12th CMS (Convention on Migratory Species) COP held in Manila. One of the actions suggested by the MsAP is the creation of so-called Vulture Safe Zones, where owners of large tracts of land commit to managing their properties in ways that will provide safe havens for existing vulture populations. Importantly, this approach encourages positive action for vultures, focusing less on prohibition and negative messaging, and more on sound environmental practices that could provide the landowner with reputational and economic benefits.

What is a Vulture Safe Zone?

In a southern African context, a Vulture Safe Zone has been defined as “an appropriately sized geographic area in which targeted conservation measures are undertaken to address the key threats relevant to the vulture species present. VSZ are developed in southern Africa as an approach to complement national and international efforts to reduce the impact of existing and emerging threats to stabilise and promote recovery of existing vulture populations.”

Initially implemented by countries in Asia (where vulture populations were decimated by use of the veterinary drug diclofenac) and recently in Zambia, Vulture Safe Zones offer conservation solutions that are effective, realistic and achievable at grassroots level. The reasons for vulture declines in Africa are varied and complex, and the application of Vulture Safe Zones should be adapted to reflect this complexity. The campaign focuses on private property owners within the borders of South Africa, who will be asked to sign a pledge in which they undertake to manage their properties in a vulture-friendly manner.

The agreements will follow a practical approach, with property owners committing to ensure that, amongst others:

  1. All electricity pylons in the Vulture Safe Zone are fitted with measures or designed to prevent vulture electrocutions and/or collisions;
  2. Water reservoirs are modified to prevent drowning;
  3. Breeding vultures (whether cliff or tree nesting) are protected from disturbance;
  4. All carcasses provided as supplementary food at vulture restaurants are lead- and contaminant-free;
  5. Poison is not used as a deterrent to mammalian predators such as jackal and caracal;
  6. Lead-free ammunition is used to cull game/livestock;
  7. All vulture populations are monitored;
  8. Any vulture mortalities are reported to BirdLife South Africa.

One of the biggest challenges facing vulture conservation in South Africa (as is the case elsewhere in Africa) is the fact that vultures cover enormous distances, often in one day, with no regard for country borders. Any attempt at conservation will have to be cognisant of the fact that a vulture protected in one region may not benefit from such protection in another. It is therefore vital that cross-border collaboration be promoted, as had been done between Lesotho and South Africa for the benefit of the Bearded Vulture. The establishment of Vulture Safe Zones is a practical, grassroots level approach that could be implemented in all countries to safeguard nesting sites and minimise threats around sites within the SADC region.

Tswalu Kalahari Reserve

Tswalu Kalahari Reserve (Northern Cape Province) was declared South Africa’s first Vulture Safe Zone on International Vulture Awareness Day (7 September 2019). Lappet-faced Vultures are known to breed on the reserve, and White-backed Vultures, that breed further north along the Kuruman and Limpopo Rivers, frequently visit the area to bathe and to forage. Reserve management has made the switch to lead-free ammunition, have committed to include vulture nest monitoring in their annual game counts and have ensured that all water reservoirs have been fitted with escape mechanisms for floundering birds. BirdLife South Africa would like to congratulate reserve management in setting the trend for the implementation of Vulture Safe Zones in South Africa.

Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province became South Africa’s first Vulture Safe Zone in September 2019. (Image: Duncan McFadyen)

Zululand Vulture Safe Zone

Following the successful implementation of South Africa’s first Vulture Safe Zone at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve in September 2019, BirdLife South Africa announced the establishment of South Africa’s second (and largest) Vulture Safe Zone on 5 September 2020, International Vulture Awareness Day. South Africa’s beautiful Zululand region, situated in northern KwaZulu-Natal, supports five of South Africa’s nine vulture species. It is also an important breeding area, particularly for the tree-nesting White-backed Vulture. Following a two-year project driven by Clive Vivier, owner of Leopard Mountain Lodge, landowners in the region have now committed to managing their properties as Vulture Safe Zones.

Covering the length of the Zululand Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, the newly established Zululand Vulture Safe Zone stretches from Pongola Game Reserve in the north to the borders of the Mkuze section of iSimangaliso National Park in the south. Bound by the N2 highway to the east, it encompasses 200,000 ha and 14 properties, including Manyoni Private Game Reserve and the Mun-ya-wana Conservancy (Phinda Game Reserve). Some of the landowners provide food for the vultures at supplementary feeding sites. A mobile chat group is used to monitor the whereabouts of the birds, and to manage a coordinated feeding programme in the hopes that a consistent supply of food will minimize the lure of carcasses laced with poison by poachers. In addition, they will now ensure that carcasses and gut piles put out at so-called “vulture restaurants” are lead- and contaminant-free, that water reservoirs are fitted with “escape” ladders to prevent drownings, and that lead-free ammunition is used for hunting and culling. Select members of staff will receive poison response training, powerlines will be monitored, and nesting vultures will be kept free of disturbance.

If you wish to know more about the implementation of Vulture Safe Zones, please contact Linda van den Heever at linda.vdheever@birdlife.org.za, or +27 (82) 331 3902.

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