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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 (the 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 ecosystem 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 on 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, as well as to undertake repeat aerial surveys of some important colonies. We have completed these resurveys across northern Botswana and are now attempting to resurvey these historical transects in the south of the country.

We remain a key partner in the conservation of the Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus in southern Africa. Sonja Krüger from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife completed her PhD research on the conservation of this population at the Fitz in 2014 and we continue to collaborate with her and others on the conservation of this important population. More recently, the conservation focus has shifted to building a captive breeding programme with the hope 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.

We reinvigorated a project, first initiated by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, to build a wind farm collision risk model for Cape Vultures Gyps coprotheres across their entire range. In 2019, we collated data from most organisations that have tracked Cape Vultures in southern Africa. Using these data, and building on our experiences with similar models for Bearded Vultures and Verreaux’s Eagles Aquila verreauxi, we are producing a risk model that will help to ensure that developers can avoid siting wind turbines in the more sensitive locations for this species and thereby minimise collision risks with this threatened species.

With collaborators VulPro, EWT, CSVet and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, we have collated, updated and verified a national database of vulture supplementary feeding stations (SFS) in South Africa. These spatial data on feeding sites and their provisioning rates provide a valuable tool in conservation planning and will facilitate future research in determining the effect of SFS on aspects of vulture biology such as demography and their movement ecology.

In an effort to understand the prevalence and spatial distribution of poison-use for predator control, we have conducted interviews with farmers across the country. With these data we aim to produce a heatmap of poison-use for South Africa and identify the drivers that predict a landowner’s propensity to engage in poison use. The results from this study will have important implications for the conservation management of vultures.

Activities in 2019

  • Christiaan Brink produced an updated national database of vulture supplementary feeding stations for South Africa. This database is a collaborative project with multiple organisations working together for vulture conservation.
  • Christiaan, Arjun Amar and Sonja Kruger submitted a paper to Ostrich assessing the best site and release strategy for a Bearded Vulture reintroduction in South Africa.
  • Christiaan interviewed 823 farmers across South Africa about the prevalence of poison-use for predator control and general attitudes towards vultures.
  • Led by Vultures Namibia, eight juvenile Lappet-faced Vultures Torgos tracheliotos have been fitted with GPS tracking units within the Namib Naukluft National Park to study early-life movements and survival in this harsh landscape.
  • Rochelle Mphetlhe, working in collaboration with Raptors Botswana, commenced a repeat of nearly 25,000 km of raptor road transects, first surveyed in the 1990s in southern Botswana. Rochelle plans to register for a MSc in 2020.

Highlights

  • Together with other colleagues, Christiaan, Arjun, Robert Thomson, and Andrea Santangeli published a paper from Christiaan’s PhD study in Animal Conservation about the spatial distribution and resource contribution of vulture supplementary feeding sites in South Africa.
  • Leungo Leepile’s Conservation Biology MSc project documenting the changes in nesting numbers and breeding success of African White-backed Vultures Gyps africanus in northern Botswana was accepted for publication in Bird Conservation International.

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, poison 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 us understand why, what, where and how vulture threats occur, with implications for targeting cost-effective conservation actions.

Key co-supporters
DST-NRF CoE grant; NRF Innovation Scholarship; JW Jagger Grant; Denver Zoo; Raptors Botswana; Rufford Grant; Wilderness Wildlife Trust;  Colombus Zoo; Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund; Leslie Brown Memorial Grant; Peregrine Fund; IDEA Wild; British Ecological Society; Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife; Endangered Wildlife Trust; N3TC through Wildlands, Vultures Namibia, VulPro, HawkWatch International, University of Marburg.

Research team 2019
A/Prof. 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 Andrew Tucker (CSVet, Pretoria)
Dr Megan Murgatroyd (HawkWatch International)
Dr Beckie Garbett (Birdlife International)
Dr Chris Briggs (Hamilton College, USA)

Student: Christiaan Brink (PhD, UCT)