Bird numbers fly into the red

By KAMCILLA PILLAY Time of article published Jul 31, 2014

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Durban - Poisoning, power line electrocutions, traditional medicine, and wind farms all pose a risk to some KwaZulu-Natal species of birds.

BirdLife International said the bearded vulture has been hardest hit in the province and country.

Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson, conservation manager and an Oppenheimer Fellow of Birdlife South Africa, said on Friday that the bearded vulture, has been moved from the “least concern” category to “near threatened” by BirdLife International this year.

BirdLife International is the custodian of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Bird Species.

“In our regional Red Data Book, to be published later this year, this species will be listed as ‘critically endangered’, with only about 400 individuals and 100 breeding pairs remaining in the wild in South Africa (Free State, KZN and the Eastern Cape) and Lesotho (mainly restricted to the escarpment and Lesotho highlands).”

She said the Southern African population was endemic to the Maloti Drakensberg Mountains.

Smit-Robinson said that vultures in particular were susceptible for collision with wind turbines.

“BirdLife South Africa, BirdLife International and The Royal Society for Protection of Birds are working with the developers and the Lesotho Department of Environmental Affairs to ensure that best practice monitoring will be undertaken prior to the construction at the proposed Letseng wind farm. Only based on such results, will the authorities be able to decide whether the proposed mitigation will be effective and financially feasible.”

She said South Africa and Lesotho shared responsibility for safeguarding the populations of bearded vultures.

“Birds do not observe political boundaries and the populations of both species span South Africa and Lesotho. Significant impacts on the birds in one country will spill over to its neighbour. We therefore believe that the project has a responsibility to respond to the threat that the proposed Letseng Wind Farm poses to populations of bearded vultures, as further declines of birds in Lesotho will severely impact the viability and survival rates of the vultures in South Africa.”

She said that vultures played important roles in ecology, the economy and in culture.

“They are scavengers and by disposing of waste and carcasses they help control populations of other disease-carrying scavengers and pests. In this way they help protect human health, as well as that of domesticated animals and wildlife.”

Local bird expert and curator of birds at the Durban Natural Science Museum David Allan said South Africa held the only population of the beared vulture in the southern hemisphere.

“The rest are found only in Europe and Asia, so our variety is very special.”

He agreed with Smit-Robinson, adding that great care had to be taken to protect the bird species.

“We don’t have wind turbines here yet, but we can see from the mortality rates of similar species in countries like Spain that we need to be thinking carefully of safeguards.”

Another South African species that has been moved up the list from “near threatened” to “globally vulnerable”, is the Taita falcon, said Smit-Robinson.

“An estimated 50 breeding pairs and less than 500 individuals remain across its range in southern, eastern and western Africa. The Taita falcon will similarly be uplisted to ‘critically endangered’ in the region, with only eight pairs known from the Mpumalanga and Hoedspruit areas in South Africa.”

According to Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife’s Head of Science: “The 2014 Global Red List is crucial not only for helping to identify those species needing targeted recovery efforts, but also for focusing the conservation agenda by identifying the key sites and habitats that need to be saved, including Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas.”

BirdLife South Africa bases its checklist on the global one provided by the International Ornithologist’s Union, as the basis for its Red List process.

The 2014 global assessment also raised the importance of several threatened bird hotspots. Many of the newly recognised species are found in South-East Asia, where biodiversity is highly threatened.

Parts of this region have already been identified as globally important areas of endemism (holding many species that occur nowhere else).

“These areas need immediate conservation attention to protect the remaining habitat and safeguard the future of critically endangered birds,” said the organisation.

The total number of species recognised by BirdLife in the 2014 Red List update is 10 425.

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