Several vulture species have recently been uplisted by the IUCN to endangered and critically endangered, with population estimates showing catastrophic declines across Africa. Vultures have now also been recognised as the fastest declining bird species globally and therefore the work that VulPro undertakes has never before been as important as it is today.
As the only organisation of its kind on the African continent, VulPro continues to grow at a rapid rate putting more pressure on existing resources and stretching our existing facilities to the limit. To help with the ever increasing demands, we have amalgamated the VulPro Flyer and the Vulture Restaurant Newsletter into one newsletter, sharing our work and the work of our colleagues throughout southern Africa, with all interested supporters and followers as well as farmers and landowners; who are ultimately the ones alongside conservationists who are on the ground saving vultures outside of protected areas.
VulPro is incredibly proud of its achievements to-date and we acknowledge that our work would not be possible without the ongoing support and assistance of our generous donors. As VulPro heads into its 10th year of existence, we will continue to uphold strong ethics, values and strive to save all vulture species globally.
We trust you will enjoy this issue of our first combined newsletter and welcome any comments, thoughts and ideas.
CEO – Kerri Wolter
PhD Candidate at the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology – Jordan-Laine Calder
Project: Investigating the role of vulture restaurants in vulture conservation in Southern Africa.
Conservation has long passed the stage of simply erecting fences around wild places and protecting the animals that live within these borders. Effective conservation must know no boundaries and engage just as much with people as it does with the animals we aim to conserve. This is a lesson I learnt academically during my MSc in conservation biology at UCT but am aiming to put it into practice as I embark on a multi-disciplinary PhD in vulture conservation.
Supervised by Dr Robert Thomson and Dr Arjun Amar from the Fitzpatrick Institute as well as Dr Andrea Santangeli from the University of Helsinki, I will investigate the role that vulture restaurants play in vulture conservation in Southern Africa. I will be working closely with South African pig farmers who could potentially benefit greatly from establishing vulture restaurants associated with their farms. Vultures provide a free carcass disposal service for the tons of unsuitable pig meat that would otherwise have to be disposed of through costly and environmentally unfriendly methods like incineration. A relationship between pig farmers and vultures could be a win-win situation in which vultures have access to clean, safe meat while the farmers enjoy a natural clean up service. As promising as this situation sounds, it is of course very complicated and through my research I aim to understand the costs and benefits for the farmers as well as the potential contribution these restaurants can make to bolstering diminishing vulture populations.
Cape Town is my home but this project will take me to all corners of the country as I learn more about these remarkable birds. Travelling between the wild places of South Africa is not new to me nor is it something I ever take for granted.
My undergraduate studies saw me wandering the forests of Hogsback when I worked for the Cape Parrot Project and for my honours thesis I did my time on Robben Island with some tuxedo’d seabirds. Since finishing my MSc I worked in Kruger National Park on a study abroad program and during my stint as a wildlife film-maker in 2015 I explored the bushveld, the Cederberg, the Karoo and my beloved Cape mountains. This PhD is not just an opportunity to further my academic career but is my chance to contribute to African conservation and do my part to help save our precious wildlife.
Volunteer – Lucy Ferrer
I sat on a sandy beach bar in Zanzibar rifling through wildlife volunteering programs in Africa, sipping a cold(ish) beer. So a bit of back story - I'm from the UK, studying a Masters qualification in Wildlife Biology & Conservation, & had been in East Africa helping to make a film about the continued poaching of critically endangered species. After the film crew had left, I had wanted to stay & get more hands on experience with animals, so I flew to Zanzibar to take some time to myself, study, check out the local wildlife & to email conservation programmes for volunteer opportunities.
Through an African volunteering website I found VulPro. There was an article which explained how the biggest threat to vultures in Africa was through poisoning. What grabbed my attention was reading how poachers are now using poison to kill vultures to stop them revealing the location of the carcass, & thus revealing the location of their latest victim & the poachers themselves. As I had just been filming & researching poaching, interviewing ex-poachers & the people trying to reduce human-animal conflict, VulPro hit me as the next obvious step in my journey. I emailed Kerri, & she got back to me right away saying she could take me on as a volunteer for the next four weeks.
I have worked with monkeys, zebra, flamingoes, bison, parrots, owls, cranes, grumpy swans & even hawks & falcons, but nothing comes close to vulture care: hauling dead pigs, chopping rotten carcasses, being bitten & scratched - it's brilliant. There's something so endearing about these birds when you are up close to them. They regard you with such curiosity & intelligence that it's hard not fall for them, & I definitely have. I have learnt a lot & had unique experiences working with these animals: Feeding them, conducting research, taking tours & watching medical procedures at the local veterinary hospital (everybody stops and looks at a vulture being carried down the hallway!). I would urge anyone to give Kerri & the vultures a hand & volunteer a few hours, days or weeks, but here's a few pictures to explain it a bit better.
Volunteer – Veerle Beekman
VulPro crossed my path rather unexpectedly, filling a gap that was left due to –let’s say – unforeseen circumstances. The bright side of it is new perspectives that present themselves and as a Belgian student in Animal Care which is quite a broad study, I could gain experience in yet another field. I knew little about vultures, but tend to embrace a world quickly when the approach is smart and genuine, when flexibility can make needs meet each other. It was a go!
Wild vultures, captured vultures - they come together at VulPro. They don’t give you the chance to get bored, “cute” in picking up the twigs you cut for them, “caring” in building a nest with them. Quarreling like attorneys in court over a point of law, touching your soul when floating on thermals showing beautiful slow motion choreography in the sky. Naughty when pinching your butt while you clean the water, devouring when fed a carcass, leaving nothing but a clean skeleton and skin.
Vulture protection goes beyond the daily encounters and being involved in every aspect of vulture conservation is exciting. Like surveying the often devastating results of the power lines that they roost on. Line surveys are walking with a mission - licensing you in jumping fences, literally and figuratively.
Shared impressions and work by a small but engaged team, passionate women and real sun shines of men who make you serve the same cause.
Dealing with scavengers is entering a different world, raw and at the same time beautiful and warm!
Wild Captures at VulPro Maggie Hirschauer
Two wild captures were conducted at VulPro’s restaurant in December and March with the aim of tagging fledglings. Fledgling plumage is distinctive, allowing us to determine their age accurately and subsequently correctly mark the age of life milestones. For example, the large patagial tags used provide incredible readability and allow us to identify individuals on cliffs during our annual colony breeding censuses. We hope in the coming years to gather data on the dispersal and breeding successes of these fledglings. Adults and immatures were also inevitably captured in the walk-in trap and processed. Blood and feather samples were taken for the National Research Foundation’s Biobank as well as blood samples for sexing.
We are thrilled to report high re-sighting rates for all of the tagged birds averaging 76% between the two captures. Unfortunately, none of the fledglings captured in March have yet to be re-sighted. Young Cape Vultures fledge from their nests between November and January and forage widely in the first few years of life. We suspect the several young birds captured in December were hatched from local Magaliesberg colonies, yet the fledglings captured in March may not be local but fed at VulPro before continuing to explore the skies of southern Africa.
VulPro Eastern Cape Kate Webster
Public awareness activities:
Indirect activities involving the awareness of vultures and their plight, have been ongoing. During January, I addressed and wonderful audience of the Ons Eie Klub in Queenstown. Their response and interaction always makes one feel it is worth presenting talks like this. I have posted and handed out VulPro material to various people I have interacted with over the past couple of months. Often interacting specifically with the younger generation.
I have continued to interact with the media and have had full page editions namely – “Daarom verdien ‘n Aasvoël ‘n dineë tafel” and “Aasvoëls bly aan Kortste Ent trek “ of the Die Buite Bylae of die Oos Kaap Burger and Wes Kaap Burger which have been published. The May edition of the Promerops magazine of the W Cape Bird Club has run an article on the work done on the vultures of the Eastern Cape together with VulPro.
I also interacted with Abrie Burger of the Rapport newspaper who indicated he would be running an article on vultures and how the general public could become involved in helping protect the species. This article is still due to be published.
I did a live interview on Tim Neary on 702 regarding the continued problems around the negative impact that the Eskom network has on the vultures in the Eastern Cape and Southern Free State. I was also interviewed on how farmers can assist with vultures by a Namibian radio station.
During January we fitted Thomas, a male Cape Vulture that was found under transmission lines in the Thomas River area near Stutterheim with a tracking device. He was then re released in the Thomas river area and is presently foraging mainly along the eastern side of the Eastern Cape.
During February I received a call from the Stormberg area near Molteno with two grounded Cape vultures found. Unfortunately the one bird died however the other which was a power line collision had permanent ligament damage and has been re located to Vulpro. April was an extremely busy period collecting injured birds, majority negative interactions with power lines. I collected a juvenile Cape Vulture from Dodrecht from Mr Grant Wiehahn, with minor injuries. This juvenile bird who was later fitted with a tracking device and re released in the Barkly pass area. The bird currently is foraging in the Bloemhof dam area on the border between the N Cape and NW province. The second Cape Vulture I collected was a power line collision bird in the Bedford/Cookhouse area with a badly fractured wing. This bird was stabilized and later transported to VulPro for wing amputation and has become a permanent resident at VulPro. I collected a young tagged African White-backed vulture from Mr Jaco Maartins in Reddersberg. This bird had been found grounded on the farm. It too has been transported to VulPro and is being monitored for possible re release. Towards the end of April I travelled to an area north west of Burgersdorp (Knapdaar) close to the Orange river to collect another collision Cape Vulture. Both wings (one wing was badly damaged) were affected and after a week of rehabilitation was also transported to VulPro for wing amputation to become a permanent resident at VulPro. In all the above cases where the birds had negatively impacted with the Eskom network, I submitted reports for mitigation to take place. I also travelled through to Smithfield to complete a report for a tagged Cape Vulture (tagged at VulPro in 2014) which had been found electrocuted
I then proceeded to Zastron to complete a report where 5 Cape Vultures and 1 African White-backed Vulture (also tagged) were found electrocuted under the distribution lines. My report from the Stormberg area included other species namely, Blue Crane and Shelduck.
I have continued to feed vultures at the restaurant at Rookwood with the food being supplied by a local abattoir, Peace Abattoir. I set up the camera trap and besides vultures also have African Fish Eagle, Verreaux’s Eagle, Jackal Buzzard, Pied crows and White-necked Ravens making use of this facility. The Cape Vultures have identified the site and during the early part of this year, counts of up to 50 birds have been seen. I also interacted with Leon Bekker from Tshwane University to help set up a restaurant at the Trollip’s farm in the Ugie area to be able to utilize carcasses from a student who is doing research on pigs near Tsolo.
On the 11th May I attended the Predator Management Forum meeting of the National Wool Growers in Port Elizabeth and informed members about the need to supply safe food for vultures and how to deal with possible problem vultures potentially attacking livestock.
I have sent a write up on this issue with guidelines and contact details to be published in the next newsletter.
In the past week I have liaised with Mr Jan van As from Stellenryck Environmental Solutions with regard to the potential impact a potential quarry would have on the feeding site of vultures at Elliot. I met with members of the company, Mr Withers the person in charge of the explosives as well as Jason Kaschula who will be doing the quarry work. A detailed report will be submitted to Stellenryck Environmental.
While I was in Elliot, I then dismantled the capture enclosure that had been erected for capture of Cape Vultures for a wind farm developer. This project has now come to a close with 4 birds having been fitted – 2 captured at the site - unfortunately both died within 4 months (2015) and 2 rehabilitated birds that were subsequently fitted with devices. It would have been great to be able to have captured and fitted 4 birds with tracking devices, however, should the opportunity arise we will fit rehabilitated birds that are able to be re released in the future. There is still a large amount of information needed to understand the Cape Vulture of the Eastern Cape.
We continue to have a wonderful partnership in DHL Supply Chain and during April they transported 4 non-releasable birds from Rookwood to VulPro with their normal efficient and professional service as always. My thanks must go to the whole DHL team for this magnificent support they give us every year.
I continue to have a good working relationship with our Department of Environment with special mention to Tokoza Twalinga who handles all my permit applications so efficiently. Other members within this Department, namely Tim de Jongh and Div de Villiers are very supportive in understanding the plight of the vultures in this province and beyond.
Lastly I cannot do all the above without the tremendous support from VulPro, in particular Kerri Wolter and my sponsors namely Lomas Wildlife Protection Trust and DHL Supply Chain and lastly to my family and staff of Rookwood for those ‘extra’ hands that are always there to assist me.
VulPro success stories
“Bee Sting” came to VulPro in November 2011, aptly named because of the over 220 bee stings that she had suffered from. She was rehabilitated at VulPro and
remained in captivity until his release in February 2015. “Bee Sting” elected to stay at VulPro with our resident birds until the 20th of May 2016. Her GPS tracking device showed us that she finally left the property and flew straight to the Skeerpoort Colony, 20 km away from VulPro. We will be keeping a close eye on “Bee Sting” and will update you accordingly with her progress and travels.
CL Woolcott Vulture Restaurant – Beckie Garbett
The Kalahari delivers fine dining at the CL Woolcott Vulture Restaurant in Ghanzi, Botswana, which was officially opened in September 2015. The vision of the restaurant was to provide a safe and clean source of supplementary food for vultures that is free of poison, agro-chemicals, harmful veterinary drugs and lead; as well as acting as a centre for conservation education, eco tourism and research. The Kalahari is no stranger to the devastating poisoning events which have been decimating vulture populations across southern Africa. This area is considered a stronghold for 3 out of the 5 species of vultures found in Botswana and is therefore an important conservation area for southern African vulture populations. The surrounding Ghanzi farms are known to support breeding populations of white-backed and lappet-faced vultures and therefore the restaurant also aims to improve breeding success and chick survival rates. With the restaurant situated in the heartbeat of Botswana’s cattle farming community, it advocates the essential co-existence of farmers/landowners and vultures; these birds love to take their chances outside of protected areas! The restaurant has been dedicated to the late Chris Woolcott,
Kids at an educational workshop at the vulture restaurant opening
who was a highly respected farmer and an avid supporter of vulture conservation; on who’s farm the restaurant is located (Thakadu Bush Camp). The restaurant has already hosted hundreds of children and teenagers from all over Botswana who have been swept up in fun educational activities and bird watching out of the newly built hide.
An in situ camera trap located at the restaurant, has snapped numerous re-sightings of tagged birds. To date, all have originated from tagging exercises in the Ghanzi district. On the flip side, a cape vulture which was tagged near Francistown in eastern Botswana was re-sighted at the VulPro restaurant in July last year. The Ghanzi restaurant receives hundreds of white-backed vultures as well as significant numbers of lappet-faced vultures.
Many of these birds have ‘set up shop’ within close vicinity to the restaurant and visit daily; as well as nesting in the area. The restaurant also pulls in international volunteers from other local conservation NGO’s in the area to help with clean up duties; which is also an aspect of the conservation education component of their visit to Botswana.
Blink and you won’t miss it with huge eye catching signs situated along the highway to Ghanzi welcoming you to vulture country. All welcome!
KP2LF – Lappet Faced Vulture
Adult lappet-faced vulture KP2LF began it’s scientific mission on the 16th September 2013 at a location called Kalahari Plains in the NE area of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), Botswana. The map displays it’s original tagging location, as well as it’s movements over the past 32 months. As you can see this bird has travelled some serious kilometres, fairly regularly traversing international borders into Namibia and moving as far south as the Karas mountain region. Likewise, in South Africa it has visited the Upington area where it spent a few days before heading directly back to it’s original tagging location in the CKGR. You can clearly see the pattern of long-range forays, with hundreds of kilometres covered in 1 day in a direct line of travel to a frequently visited location. Interestingly, out of a further 8 lappet-faced vultures which have been tagged by Raptors Botswana in similar locations in Botswana, 3 of these have also followed the exact same long-range forays into Namibia. In contrast, this bird is also somewhat of a ‘homebody’ and has spent a lot of concentrated amounts of time in and around it’s original tagging location in the Central Kalahari. Since satellite GPS monitoring began, this bird has not been seen to breed. Maybe this year will be the exception but at the moment there is no obvious nest site apparent from the movement data. The below map shows the last 3 +/- weeks of movements where it has just been staying within a small area around the original tagging location.
This bird was re-sighted in November 2013 and the observer managed to get this stunning in-flight shot. Again, it was at it’s original tagging location and was sighted by an international tourist on safari.
There are currently a further 8 lappet-faced vultures with GPS satellite transmitters in Botswana which have been deployed by Raptors Botswana as part of their nationwide vulture research project. This project also encompasses research on nesting ecology, population trends of raptors in Botswana over the last 20 years and investigations into the significance of lead for vulture populations. Data collected to date is in the process of being analysed and results will be made available through scientific journals and social media. It is expected to contribute significantly to our understanding and conservation management practice of this species and as well as other vultures throughout southern Africa.
Raptors Botswana was established in 2013 by a group of dedicated conservationists to ensure the long-term survival of all raptors in Botswana and southern Africa. It is a working group of local NGO Kalahari Research and Conservation, which takes a holistic approach to studying and conserving the Kalahari ecosystem whilst also working towards the development of research and conservation capacity within Botswana through the support of Motswana students.
Raptors Botswana’s main objective is to conserve vultures in Botswana and southern Africa through proactive, applied conservation based on detailed research combined with targeted community education and awareness.
VulPro’s foundation Vulture a star father
Percy’s introduction to Kerri as a chick cemented her passion for and understanding of the Cape Vulture and ultimately led to the development of VulPro and all the good work that it has accomplished to date. Not only was Percy, VulPro’s first Vulture Ambassador, he has also become the star of our captive breeding programme. He is an exemplary parent of PJ who is an education vulture and Vernon who will be reintroduced to the wild. This year Percy has built such an amazing nest and has proven to be such an attentive and dedicated father that the decision was taken to leave his egg with him and his mate instead of removing it for incubation and replacing it with a dummy egg.
Intern Matthew Hron
My name is Matthew Hron and I am from Denver, Colorado in the United States. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology from the University of Wisconsin, and while I currently work in healthcare IT, I’m passionate about animals and interested in a career in wildlife conservation. I am at VulPro this winter (May-August) as an intern focusing on the Cape Vulture captive breeding program, and I look forward to when our eggs start hatching so I can help raise the chicks until they’re returned to the adult vultures. This is my first time in Africa, and I’m excited to experience new wildlife, different cultures, and beautiful scenery. I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with VulPro and learn about vulture rehabilitation, breeding, and conservation, and for the support of my partner, Jerusha, and our beloved leopard gecko, Deloris.
Kid’s Corner Mandy Schroder
Education is key to VulPro’s growth, success and impact and it is incredibly exciting and rewarding to see that VulPro’s Kid’s Corner has reached just about every country in the world. I have also learnt more about what articles are more interesting to people and have started to delve into more detailed articles such as “How Vultures make and lay eggs”, in my research it has become glaringly apparent how scarce decent information about vultures is on the internet and it has made me even more determined to make VulPro and VulPro’s Kid’s Corner a force to be reckoned with. I can’t wait for the day that every Google search about South African vultures leads to one of our two websites. As an overview – Kid’s Corner had 2971 views from 1397 visitors for 43 posts in 2015. To date the site has had 2803 views from 1506 visitors from the 5 posts, posted so far in 2016. Kid’s Corner also gave birth to our new education material which Kerri tells me has been flying off our shelves and incredibly popular. Our next big goal is to have it translated into different African languages to increase our coverage and impact. As a lay person, I am trying to target the questions that I have relating to vultures and using those to formulate the next series of articles. If anyone has any questions or ideas that they would like answered then please feel free to email me, I will do my best to get the answers and formulate them into fun informative articles that the entire family can enjoy.
Vulture match-making is an actual duty we perform within the captive programme. With the recent maturation of several of VulPro’s non-releasable Lappet-faced Vultures, we decided it was time separate individuals into new enclosures to see if they are interested in pairing. The male frequently gathers nesting material provided (large sticks) and approaches the female with them in his beak. ‘Greetings’, or characteristic twists of their heads while facing each other, are becoming more common and are reciprocated between individuals. The pair often feed together side by side. We are very hopeful they will decide to form our first breeding pair. Our Cape Vulture breeding colony has been very busy, with most breeding activity happening over the last two months. Our Cape Vulture colony totals 15 breeding pairs this year. Several more breeding pairs have been double clutched this year compared to last year to allow pairs with infertile eggs the chance to raise a chick.
Our total clutch this year has reached 19 eggs, 8 of which are confirmed fertile. VulPro’s colony has the potential to raise 13 Cape Vulture chicks this year! Five chicks will be raised entirely by the parents from the time they hatch, while eight will be hand raised for 2 to 3 weeks before being returned to the parents.
We have two breeding pairs of African White-backed vultures (AWBV) this year as our captive population of non-releasable birds continues to grow. Unfortunately, the newest pair did not successfully claim a nest site or build a nest before the female laid an egg. This egg was found the morning it was laid, broken on the ground. In mid-May, our experienced AWBV pair ‘s female became egg bound and required medical intervention to save her life. We were not able to save her egg but she has made a full recovery and we expect her to lay another egg before July.
Lead Toxicity – Dangerous to humans and vultures alike!
Understanding Lead Poisoning
All Birds of Prey, especially long lived, slow breeding species such as vultures, are at risk of lead poisoning. Vultures and other animals are exposed to lead shards when feeding on animals that have been killed by lead bullets as well as from the entrails left behind by hunters. It is also highlights the responsibilities of places housing raptors such as vultures to ensure that their enclosures are lead free, this applies to lead free paint and a lead free water supply, a problem in many older facilities where water was routinely piped in lead pipes, soil needs to be lead free and vegetation supplied needs to be lead free too, another factor to consider here is the emissions from lead based petrol.
In large quantities lead is detrimental to the nervous and reproductive systems of vultures. A vulture with lead poisoning will show weakness and anorexia, the most dangerous symptoms are not easily detectable until serious damage has occurred. The Cape Vulture experiences osteodystrophy (softening and degeneration of the bones) and reduced reproductive success. For a slow breeding species like the Cape Vulture this has a huge impact on the species population numbers, as well as the number of vultures who experience poor bone development resulting in ongoing fractures and ultimately death.
We need to educate farmers, landowners and hunters regarding the effect and dangers of lead toxicity on our wildlife and endangered species such as vultures. If carcasses killed using lead bullets are to be left accessible to vultures, bullets and any shards of lead need be removed. Hunters also need to be
educated about using environmentally safe, non-fragmenting copper bullets.
Why is Lead such an issue?
- Lead bullets are designed to shatter or fragment on entry, this leaves small particles scattered throughout the carcass which scavengers ingest.
- Lead toxicity in the Californian Condor has also proven to lead to lead accumulation in bone over time
- Vultures are a long lived, slow breeding species. This means that their recovery from population drops is too slow.
- Vultures scavenge communally, meaning that a single contaminated carcass can poison several vultures.
Understand the Role of Hunting
Every healthy ecosystem needs to be managed by checks and balances, hunting is a natural part of the environment that predators rely on for survival. Man may no longer need to hunt to survive but he is necessary for keeping populations under control thanks to our impact on the environment. The scraps that hunters leave behind help to feed many scavengers and hungry predators, because of this we need to encourage hunters to use non-lead bullets. The effect of lead is not just seen on our vultures but affects our other wildlife as well.
A terrifying fact is that more than 500 scientific studies published since 1898 have documented that worldwide, 134 species of wildlife are negatively affected by lead ammunition
Human Health Concerns
South Africa is a country of meat lovers and game meat is a roaring trade whether it is biltong or a venison roast, studies worldwide are increasingly showing that lead fragments can also be found in wild game meat processed for human consumption. Added to this we are exposed to lead fuel emissions, plants and vegetables that have absorbed lead and lead found in water carried in old lead pipes.
For the second year running, VulPro – The Vulture Conservation Programme of South Africa has been awarded the prestigious PAAZA (Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria conservation award for their vulture conservation work, last year VulPro was recognise and rewarded for their captive breeding programme which
resulted in the successful release of captive bred Cape Vulture chicks for population supplementation, the first ever on the African continent. This year VulPro was recognised for their hard work and commitment to saving vultures through rehabilitation, education, population monitoring and surveys, research, captive breeding and ongoing involvement and interaction with landowners, farmers and the general public. Kerri Wolter was at the awards evening to accept the award and is honoured to have won the award for a second year. She and her team work tirelessly to save SA’s vultures.