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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, as well as to undertake repeat aerial surveys of some important colonies.

We remain a key partner in the conservation of the Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus in southern Africa. 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 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. This spatial data on feeding sites and their provisioning rates will provide a valuable tool in conservation planning and will facilitate future research in determining theeffect of SFS on aspects of vulture biology such as demography and behaviour.

Activities in 2018

  • Beckie Garbett submitted her PhD focussing on the conservation of vultures in Botswana.
  • PhD student Christiaan Brink updated and verified a vulture restaurant database for South Africa. Christiaan interviewed more than 200 supplementary feeding stationmanagers regarding their provisioning rates, perceptions with regards to SFS management and motivations. Results from this study, describing the state of the network of supplementary feeding sites in South Africa, are currently being drafted for publication..
  • Leungo Leepile submitted two papers from his MSc research to the journals Bird Conservation International and Ostrich.
  • Led by Vultures Namibia, currently 8 fledgling Lappet-faced Vultures are fitted with GPS tracking units within the Namib Naukluft National Park to study early-life movements and survival in this harsh landscape.

Highlights

  • Beckie Garbett was awarded her PhD and in 2019 will take up a position as Vulture Conservation Programme Coordinator for BirdLife International in Nairobi, Kenya.
  • CB MSc students Tapiwa Zimunya and Leungo Leepile were both awarded their degrees at the December 2018 graduation ceremony, with both research projects focused on the conservation of vultures.
  • Leungo Leepile, Beckie Garbett and Christiaan Brink presented their research at the Raptor Research Foundation conference in Kruger National Park in November 2018.
  • Together with colleagues from Raptors Botswana, Beckie Garbett and Arjun Amar  published two papers from Beckie’s PhD thesis – one on lead levels of White-backed Vultures, which was published in The Scienceof the Total Environment and another on the changes in Raptor abundance in Botswana,  published in Biological Conservation.
  • Christie Craig, Robert Thomson and Andrea Santangeli published two papers. One looked at the drivers and extent of poison use in Namibia’s communal farmers published in Ambio. The other explored how these communal farmers view vultures, the ecosystem services they provide, and the cultural uses of vulture parts, published in Ostrich.
  • A paper on the lead levels in Bearded Vultures in South Africa by Sonja Krüger and Arjun Amar was published in The Journal of Raptor Research.

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

Key supporters

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, Vultures Namibia.

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)

Students:  Beckie Garbett (PhD, UCT), Christiaan Brink (PhD, UCT); Leungo Leepile (CB MSc, UCT); Tapiwa Zimunya (CB MSc, UCT).