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Current Research Programmes

Vulture conservation

We are currently experiencing what some have termed an “African Vulture Crisis”. Several populations of vultures have declined by up to 95% over the last few decades resulting in four species being listed as Critically Endangered and three as Endangered. Unlike the Asian Vulture Crisis, where the collapse of vulture populations had a single cause (the veterinary drug – diclofenac), there appears to be multiple drivers for the situation in Africa, with the importance of each varying  between species and regions.

The FitzPatrick Institute recognises that vultures provide important eco-system services and that their declines or disappearances will have a dramatic effect on people and wildlife in Africa. We are therefore 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 five species of vultures, all of which are endangered or critically endangered, despite Botswana having one of the highest percentages of protected areas coverage for wildlife conservation on the continent. 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. Another focus of this research has been on lead levels in vulture blood and how these vary inside and outside of hunting areas and hunting seasons. Finally, this research has a special focus on understanding the movement patterns and the current rates of productivity of Lappet–faced Vultures Torgos tracheliotos.

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 with 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 main Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains’ population.

With key collaborators VulPro, we are investigating the role that vulture restaurants can play in vulture conservation in South Africa. We aim to get a baseline understanding of the spatial and temporal availability of food for vultures at vulture restaurants, and to examine the benefits and the costs that these may entail. We are working with farmers, particularly from the pig industry, to gain insights into their role in providing carrion for vulture restaurants that can serve as a win-win strategy for farmers and vultures.

In Namibia, we are investigating poison use as a threat to vultures. We aim to map poison hotspots to understand the factors and conflicts that impact poison use in order to find solutions for the farmers, which will indirectly benefit vultures. With Vultures Namibia and the University of Helsinki we also aim to understand the movements of vultures within and outside of protected areas. We link movement data from across the region to investigate the overlap with areas that represent threat hotspots.

Activities in 2016

  • PhD student Beckie Garbett completed the repeat raptor road transect surveys initially carried out during 1991-1995 in northern Botswana. These data will be used to quantify the population trends of vultures in Botswana.
  • Beckie also completed breeding surveys of Lappet-faced Vultures in the Makgadkgadi Pans, and continued to collect data from GPS tagged Lappet-faced Vultures.
  • Christiaan Brink (CB MSc) investigated the feasibility of establishing a reintroduced population of Bearded Vultures in South Africa.
  • Christie Craig (CB MSc) surveyed over 350 communal farmers in Namibia to understand poison use during predator control.
  • The vulture restaurant database of South Africa was updated for analysis during 2017.
  • Four team members presented at the Pan African Ornithological Congress in Dakar, Senegal, and the second Pan African Vulture Summit (PAVS). PAVS was used to draft the Migratory Species Action Plan for African-Eurasian vultures.
  • Seven Lappet-faced Vultures in the Namib-Naukluft National park in Namibia were fitted with GSM trackers by collaborators Vultures Namibia.
  • Following the PAVS meeting, we initiated a project to synthesise the priorities for research on African Vultures from the opinions of vulture experts. This will be completed in 2017.

Highlights:

  • Over 21 000 km of repeat road transects were completed across Northern Botswana.
  • A paper examining the dispersal behaviour of GPS-tagged fledgling Bearded Vultures was  published in Bird Study in March 2017.
  • A paper examining the breeding performance of the Southern African population of Bearded Vultures was submitted to Ostrich.
  • Christie Craig presented her preliminary results at the annual Namibian Association of CBNRM Support Organisations (NASCO) Working Group meeting.

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 the why, what, where and how of vulture threats, 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 Ara Monadjem (U. Swaziland)
Dr Andrew Tucker (CSVet, Pretoria)
Vultures Namibia

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