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Current Research Programmes

Vulture conservation

We are currently experiencing what some have described as an African Vulture Crisis. The rapid decrease in vulture numbers across Africa was recently highlighted when parties to the Convention of Migratory Species unanimously adopted the Multi-species Action Plan to Conserve African-Eurasian Vultures (Vulture MsAP). Several populations of vultures have declined by up to 95% over the last few decades. Unlike the Asian Vulture Crisis, where the collapse of vulture populations had a single main cause (veterinary drug – diclofenac), there appear to be multiple drivers for the situation in Africa, with the importance of each varying between species and regions.

Vultures provide important eco-system services and their declines or disappearances will have a dramatic effect on people and wildlife in Africa. The FitzPatrick Institute is committed to help conserve vultures in Africa by engaging in a number of research projects on multiple species in several countries in southern Africa.

Working with Raptors Botswana, we are involved in a research programme to conserve Botswana’s significant populations of vultures. All  five species in the country are endangered or critically endangered. Central to this research is an attempt to quantify changes in vulture populations in Botswana over the last 20 years by repeating road transects undertaken in the early 1990s. Additionally, repeat aerial surveys have been conducted between 2005 and 2017 in Khwai and Linyanti, two of the most important breeding areas for African White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus, to assesschanges in nesting numbers and breeding success. Another focus of this research has been on lead (Pb) levels in vulture blood and how these vary inside and outside of hunting areas and hunting seasons. This research also has a special focus on understanding the movement patterns and the current rates of productivity of Lappet–faced Vultures Torgos tracheliotos. Beckie Garbett (PhD) and Leungo Leepile (MSc) are leading this work.

We remain a key partner in the conservation of the Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus in southern Africa. Dr Sonja Krüger completed her PhD research on the conservation of this population at the Fitz in 2014 and we continue to collaborate with her (Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife) and others on the conservation of this important population. More recently, research has focused on the feasibility of captive breeding and of establishing an ‘insurance’ population away from the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountain population. This project builds on the research Christiaan Brink conducted for his Conservation Biology MSc in 2015.

With key collaborators VulPro and EWT, we are investigating the role that vulture restaurants can play in vulture conservation in South Africa. We aim to collate data on the spatial and temporal availability of food at vulture restaurants, and to examine the benefits and costs that these may entail with regards to vulture breeding success, health, poisoning risk and behaviour. We are working with farmers, particularly from the pig industry, to gain insights into their role in providing carrion for vulture restaurants that can provide a win-win strategy for farmers and vultures.

In Namibia, we have investigated poison use as a threat to vultures and also work with Vultures Namibia on understanding movements of Lappet-faced Vultures breeding in the Namib-Naukluft National Park. We plan to repeat the Namibia study to map poison hotspots in South Africa and to understand the factors and conflicts that impact poison use in order to find solutions for the farmers, which will indirectly benefit vultures. Using these hotspots and tracking data we will attempt to quantify the level of poison risk aversion that vulture restaurants provide.

Activities in 2017

  • PhD student Beckie Garbett completed the repeat raptor road transect surveys initially carried out during 1991-1995 in northern Botswana. Four of the five vulture species declined overall, with White-headed Vultures and Lappet-faced Vultures showing significant declines as large as >70%.
  • Our research found elevated blood lead levels of White-backed Vultures were associated with both hunting areas and hunting season. These findings suggest that the main source of lead in vultures is likely to be from spent lead ammunition.
  • Data from 14 GPS tagged adult Lappet-faced Vultures in Botswana has been analysed. During the tracking period 2012-2017 they moved within five countries in southern Africa, including Botswana.
  • PhD student Christiaan Brink is updating and verifying a vulture restaurant database for South Africa. To date 100 vulture restaurant managers have been interviewed about their motivations for running restaurants, as well as their perceptions on vulture conservation issues.
  • CB MSc student Tapiwa Zimunya completed a preliminary analysis exploring the benefits of vulture restaurants on breeding success and chick body condition for White-backed and Cape Vultures, Gyps corprotheres. This analysis will be updated with the improved vulture restaurant database.
  • CB MSc student Leungo Leepile repeated aerial nest-surveys at the two colonies in northern Botswana. His data indicated large declines in nesting numbers and breeding success of White-backed Vultures. Modelling suggests that the region is acting as a population sink.

Highlights

  • Together with collaborators at VulPro and University of Swaziland, Tapiwa published a paper in Ostrich which explored the possibility to sex Cape Vulture based on morphometrics.
  • Christiaan Brink presented a poster at the International Ornithological Union Conference in Turku on his investigation of the feasibility of a potential Bearded Vulture reintroduction in South Africa. A related paper has been submitted to Ecology and Evolution and is currently in review.
  • Christie Craig, Robert Thomson and Andrea Santangeli published a paper in Ostrich looking at how Namibian communal farmers view vultures and the cultural uses of vulture parts.
  • Christie presented her CB MSc project on identifying poison use hotspots in Namibia at the EWT Birds of Prey conference.
  • A paper on the lead levels in White-backed Vultures by Beckie Garbett and Arjun Amar was published in Science of the Total Environment.

Impact of the project

Our research aims to understand important ecological issues affecting vultures, quantify population trends of multiple species, and identify key drivers of their population declines. Using our research on vulture restaurants, poisons use, blood lead levels and hunting, and more recently with our research on reintroductions, we hope to deliver solutions to help reverse the declines in these species in Africa. The outcomes of these projects will help better understand why, what, where and how vulture threats occur, with implications for targeting cost-effective conservation actions.

Key co-sponsors

DST-NRF CoE grant; NRF Innovation Scholarship; JW Jagger Grant; Denver Zoo; Raptors Botswana; Rufford Grant; Wilderness Wildlife Trust; Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund; Colombus Zoo; Leslie Brown Memorial Grant; Peregrine Fund; IDEA Wild; British Ecological Society; Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife; Endangered Wildlife Trust; N3TC through Wildlands.

Research team

Dr Arjun Amar (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Robert Thomson (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Sonja Krüger (EKZN Wildlife)
Dr Andrea Santangeli (U. Helsinki, Finland)
Ms Kerri Wolter (VulPro)
Dr Glyn Maude (Raptors Botswana)
Dr Richard Reading (Raptors Botswana)
Dr Gareth Tate (Endangered Wildlife Trust)
Dr Ara Monadjem (U. Swaziland)
Dr Andrew Tucker (CSVet, Pretoria)
Vultures Namibia

Students:  Beckie Garbett (PhD, UCT), Christiaan Brink (PhD, UCT); Christie Craig (CB MSc, UCT).