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Saved from poisoning, these rare African vultures take wing again

  • Three white-backed vultures rehabilitated at a specialist center after being poisoned late last year have been released back into the wild in South Africa.
  • The birds were among those rescued from mass poisonings that killed 51 others across northern KwaZulu-Natal province late last year.
  • Many vulture populations across Africa are in steep decline; poisoning by farmers aimed at other predators is a leading cause.
  • Swift reporting of poisoning enables sites to be decontaminated, limiting the number of vultures and other species affected.

Three critically endangered African white-backed vultures saved from poisoning last year have been released back into the wild in Zululand, South Africa. Those involved in local vulture conservation have welcomed the release as a crucial step to helping the species survive.

The trio were saved from separate poisoning incidents that claimed the lives of 51 birds in total in northern KwaZulu-Natal province between October and December last year.

A specialist poison response team from local conservation group Wildlife ACT, which works closely with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (the provincial government’s conservation agency), farmers and local communities, and other conservation groups to protect three endangered vulture species in KwaZulu-Natal, took them to special facilities where they were treated and slowly nursed back to full strength.

The three white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) were released on June 24. Two other birds, a lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotos) and another white-backed vulture and, which had also been rescued from the poisonings, were released back into the wild a few months earlier.

Chris Kelly, director of species conservation at Wildlife ACT, told Mongabay that the birds’ return to the wild was critical to the survival prospects of a species already under serious threat.

“These types of poisonings are detrimental to already dwindling vulture populations. Vultures find carcasses quickly and arrive in large numbers which means hundreds of vultures can be poisoned in a matter of minutes,” he said.

“Vultures are slow breeders — they only raise one chick a year and the natural survival rate is low, which means these types of mass mortalities have a huge knock-on effect on the existing population. The birds we rescue and rehabilitate are given a second chance, ensuring they can contribute further to the diminishing population.”

Each of the vultures released at Manyoni Private Game Reserve are Each bird was equipped with a GPS backpack and tags to monitor the flight the bird’s flight patterns. Image by Casey Pratt.

The birds have been fitted with satellite trackers. “This allows us to monitor these individuals over the next few years to evaluate the success of these releases,” Kelly said. “This fine-scale data also provides detailed information that helps identify their flight corridors, feeding areas, breeding sites and roosting preferences, thereby guiding and improving our conservation management practices.”

The rehabilitation and eventual release of the birds has been described by local conservationists as a bright spot in what they warn is an otherwise grim future for vultures in Africa.

Vulture populations across Africa have declined rapidly over the last three decades: eight species considered in one survey had declined by an average of 62%. Poisoning has been identified as the biggest threat to the birds. They fall victim either through secondary poisoning, where they eat a carcass poisoned with the aim of killing predators, or through so-called sentinel poisoning by poachers.

In one such incident in Botswana last year, 530 vultures were killed when poachers laced elephant carcasses with poison to prevent circling vultures from leading rangers to the scene. Others are poisoned so that vulture parts can be collected for belief-based use. The IUCN Red List currently classes 39% of vulture species as critically endangered.

KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) has significant populations of vultures, including white-headed (Trigonoceps occipitalis), African white-backed and lappet-faced vultures. The white-headed and white-backed are listed as critically endangered, and the lappet-faced as endangered.

Last year saw a spike in poisoning incidents in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Wildlife ACT said that between 2010 and 2018, its team responded to one or two incidents per year. But last year there were four separate poisoning events.

It is not clear what was behind the sudden rise, but some vulture experts believe the development is not necessarily entirely negative.

Andre Botha, Vultures for Africa program manager at Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) told Mongabay: “There is significant demand for vulture parts, and it could be that there is more poisoning going on. Or it could be that awareness is greater.

“In years past there would have been poisoning incidents which would have gone unreported. But with greater awareness now, they are getting reported more, which means a chance of more birds being saved. If this poisoning had happened 10 or 15 years ago those birds would not have been saved.”

EWT and partner organizations in 10 countries across Africa run programs to train groups such as police, conservationists, rangers and others in poisoning response and raise general awareness of issues connected to use of poison.

Three critically endangered African White Backed Vultures have been successfully rehabilitated and released back into the wild by Wildlife ACT, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Raptor Rescue; through the Zululand Vulture Project. Image by Casey Pratt.

Botha said this increased awareness has helped in improving responses to poisoning incidents. “It has made a significant difference in the areas where this work has been done,” he said.

Wildlife ACT’s Kelly said this awareness helps ensure poisonings are reported quickly to allow for a swift response, which not only helps save poisoned birds but also allows sites to be decontaminated before more vultures are affected.

“Responding to these incidents quickly can save hundreds of other vultures,” he said.

Swift and effective response to poisonings is critical to protecting vultures, as prevention remains so difficult, conservationists say.

“Poisoning mostly takes place outside a legal framework — it’s illegal, sometimes it is accidental. So, trying to stop it within existing legal frameworks is very difficult,” Campbell Murn, head of conservation and research at the U.K.-based Hawk Conservancy Trust, told Mongabay.

Ben Hoffman of Raptor Rescue, in the KZN provincial capital Pietermaritzburg, where the birds were treated and rehabilitated, told Mongabay that while investigations into the four poisoning incidents last year were ongoing, in such cases it is “difficult to identify the perpetrators.”

“All we can do is respond as quickly as possible to poisoning,” he said.

The return of the rescued birds to the wild has given those working with vultures some hope for their future.

“When a species is endangered, every single bird that is saved and returned to the wild is hugely important,” Botha said. “When it happens, it is a tremendous morale boost and gives hope to people on the ground who work with these birds. They see a success like this and are optimistic about the future for these vultures.”

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