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Current Research Programmes

Vulture conservation

Several vulture populations in Africa have declined by up to 95% over the last few decades. The critical nature of this rapid decrease was highlighted when parties to the Convention of Migratory Species adopted the Multi-species Action Plan to Conserve African-Eurasian Vultures (Vulture MsAP). Unlike the Asian Vulture Crisis, where the veterinary drug diclofenac was responsible for the collapse, there appear to be multiple drivers of the African Vulture Crisis, with the importance of each varying between species and regions.

Vultures provide important ecosystem services and their rapid declines will have a dramatic effect on people and wildlife in Africa. The FitzPatrick Institute is committed to help conserve vultures by engaging in collaborative research projects throughout the continent.

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 globally Endangered or Critically Endangered. Central to this research is an attempt to quantify changes in vulture populations in Botswana over the last 30 years by repeating road transects undertaken in the early 1990s, as well as to repeat aerial surveys of key colonies. Surveys across northern Botswana have been completed, and a Botswanan student, Rochelle Mphetlhe, was recruited to repeat the transects in the south of the country for her MSc.

We remain a key partner in the conservation of the Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus in southern Africa. We continue to collaborate with Sonja Krüger from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and others on the conservation of this important population. 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 Christiaan Brink’s CB MSc project, which was published in 2020. Another CB student, Imthiaz Sheik Abbass, is studying habitat use of Bearded Vultures in relation to human settlement density for this research project.

We are developing a wind farm collision risk model for Cape Vultures Gyps coprotheres. In 2019, we collated data from almost all organisations that have tracked Cape Vultures and are using these data to produce a risk model that will help to ensure that developers can site wind turbines in locations that are seldom used by Cape Vultures and thereby minimise collision risk. Francisco Cervantes joined Arjun Amar and Meg Murgatroyd on this project in late 2020 and will register as a post-doc from January 2021. Francisco is currently building the risk model, with the aim to have the final tool available for use in early 2021.

With collaborators VulPro, EWT, CSVet and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, we published a database of vulture supplementary feeding stations (SFS) and their provisioning rates in South Africa. This will facilitate ongoing research on the effect of SFS on vulture demography and movement. The data are already playing an important role in the Cape Vulture Collision Risk Model.

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 produced a heatmap of poison-use for South Africa and identified predictors of a landowner’s propensity to engage in poison use. This study was published in Ambio in early 2021.

Activities in 2020

  • Vultures Namibia fitted eight more juvenile Lappet-faced Vultures Torgos tracheliotos with GPS tracking units in the Namib Naukluft National Park in 2020 to study early-life movements and survival in this harsh landscape.
  • Rochelle Mphetlhe, working in collaboration with Raptors Botswana, continued her repeat of nearly 25 000 km of raptor road transects, first surveyed in the 1990s in southern Botswana. Rochelle will register for an MSc in 2021.

Highlights

  • Two papers from Christiaan Brink’s PhD were published in 2020: one in Animal Conservation reported the distribution and resource contribution of vulture SFS in South Africa, and one in Conservation Science and Practice about the perceptions of SFS managers and possible risks in this conservation strategy.
  • A third chapter from Christiaan’s PhD, using the data of 823 farmer interviews across South Africa about the prevalence of poison-use for predator control and general attitudes towards vultures was accepted for publication in Ambio.
  • Christiaan’s MSc research which explored the feasibility of a reintroduced population of Bearded Vultures was published in Ostrich.
  • Leungo Leepile’s CB MSc project on changes in nesting numbers and breeding success of African White-backed Vultures in northern Botswana was published in Bird Conservation International.
  • Andrea Santangeli and colleagues from Vultures Namibia and Spain published a study in Biological Conservation on the survival of Lappet-faced Vultures based on resightings of wing-tagged individuals.
  • BioTherm Energy funded two vulture projects: one, in collaboration with VulPro, to track Cape Vultures from Potberg, the Western Cape’s only vulture colony, and one to help fund our Cape Vulture collision risk model, being led by Franciso Cervante.

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

DSI-NRF CoE grant; NRF Innovation Scholarship; ABAX Foundation, BioTherm Energy. JW Jagger Grant; Denver Zoo; Raptors Botswana; Rufford Grant; Wilderness Wildlife Trust; Colombus Zoo; Leslie Brown Memorial Grant; Peregrine Fund; IDEA Wild; Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife; Endangered Wildlife Trust; N3TC through Wildlands, Vultures Namibia, VulPro, HawkWatch International, University of Marburg, Academy of Finland

Research team 2020

A/Prof. Arjun Amar (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Robert Thomson (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Sonja Krüger (EKZN Wildlife)
Dr Andrea Santangeli (U. Helsinki, FIAO, UCT)
Dr Megan Murgatroyd (HawkWatch International)
Dr Francisco Cervantes (FIAO, UCT)
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 Beckie Garbett (BirdLife International)
Dr Francisco Cervante (FIAO, UCT)
Dr Chris Briggs (Hamilton College, USA)

Students: Christiaan Brink (PhD, UCT), Imthiaz Sheik Abbass (CB MSc, UCT).