Easy pickings could be toxic way out

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By trying to avoid the multitude of large, snarling predators in wildlife reserves, vultures are exposing themselves to great danger by eating cattle and other livestock carcasses containing poison and harmful veterinary drugs. Picture: Sizwe Ndingane

Durban - Fearful of lions and hyenas, many vultures are shunning the food available in South Africa’s national parks and feeding instead on the easier pickings available on private farms.

However, by trying to avoid the multitude of large, snarling predators in wildlife reserves, vultures are exposing themselves to great danger by eating cattle and other livestock carcasses containing poison and harmful veterinary drugs.

These are some of the findings of a new study by British and South African researchers who tracked the movement of several endangered white-backed vultures fitted with GPS satellite transmitters. The researchers found that young white-backed vultures sometimes flew more than 220km a day to find food.

They ranged extensively, crossing the borders of five countries in southern Africa during the 200-day monitoring period.

“We found that young vultures travelled much further than we ever imagined to find food,” said lead author Stephen Wills of Durham University in England.

“In South Africa, the vultures avoided the national parks that have been established to conserve wildlife.”

As a result, these parks were unlikely to secure the future of such wide-ranging and endangered birds, said Wills.

“The vultures may actively avoid parks with many large carnivores such as lions due to competition for food, and find it easier to feed on cattle carcasses in farmland outside the protected areas.”

Kerry Wolter, the head of the Vulture Programme in North West province, said vultures had a tendency to scavenge in groups, exposing large numbers of birds to the risk of being poisoned by veterinary drugs or even by deliberately poisoned carcasses intended to kill jackals.

Wolter, who also took part in the research, said: “In the past, we believed that protecting nature reserves was the way to go, but tracking devices show that vultures are spending very little time in protected areas, and this makes the conservation of these birds much more difficult.”

Instead of trying to protect vultures in a single country, it was essential for neighbouring countries to work jointly for their protection.

Louis Phipps, from the University of Pretoria, said another part of the solution was to work with farmers to try to ensure that vultures did not feed on contaminated carcasses. - The Mercury

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