LOOK: Endangered lappet-faced vulture nesting sites saw a 60% decline in 2021

Wildlife ACT deployed four, light-weight solar-powered GPS tracking units on each of the four lappet-faced vulture chicks. Screenshot: Vulture Conservation with Wildlife ACT/YouTube

Wildlife ACT deployed four, light-weight solar-powered GPS tracking units on each of the four lappet-faced vulture chicks. Screenshot: Vulture Conservation with Wildlife ACT/YouTube

Published Jan 13, 2022


Vulture populations across Africa and some parts of the world have seen a steady decline for decades with certain species such as the white-backed vulture listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the same threat level as the black rhino, and a considerably higher threat level than the white rhino.

Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife (EKZN) said in a recent media statement that conservation teams from EKZN, Wildlife ACT, the Zululand Vulture Project and Project Vulture have seen a significant decline in nesting sites of the lappet-faced vulture with 60% fewer nesting sites found in 2021 compared to 2020.

Ezemvelo said that “KZN’s vulture population contributes significantly to South Africa’s breeding population, located within the breeding range for all three tree nesting species.

Considering the ecosystem services vultures play, these populations are especially important in the context of KZN’s mixed land use, with a mosaic of agriculture, residential and protected areas.”

The lappet-faced vulture, the largest vulture on the continent, is listed as endangered on the IUCN red list with a current and dramatic population decline.

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After intensive aerial surveys carried out by Ezemvelo and Wildlife ACT in September 2021, nest counts for lappet-faced vultures have indicated an alarming decrease from 15 active nests in 2020 to only six in 2021, meaning the province’s population declined by 60% in one year.

Wildlife ACT deployed four, light-weight solar-powered GPS tracking units on each of the four lappet-faced vulture chicks. This would enable the team to monitor the chicks' movements when they are ready to leave the nest.

Data received from the GPS units will assist conservationists to understand the vulture's habitat range, habitat use, flight paths and any potential threats the birds may be faced with. They will also allow teams a speedy response if any abnormal movement is detected.

Brent Coverdale, large mammal and bird scientist at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife said that “2021 vulture breeding continues to disappoint.

Confirming zero White-Headed Vultures breeding in the province and a considerable decline in breeding lappets is of grave concern. This decline is most probably attributed to the numerous poisoning events that have occurred in the latter part of 2020 and throughout 2021.”

A May 2021 Conservation Criminology-Based Desk Assessment of Vulture Poisoning in the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area, published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation noted a sudden spike in intentional vulture poisoning and poaching.

“Conservation stakeholders have identified evidence that a number of vulture species in particular ecosystems are being systematically targeted by poisoning with potentially significant effects on human, wildlife and ecosystem health,” says the paper.

“The challenges that our vultures face are becoming ever more tangible and these recent results further highlight the severity of the current crisis we are witnessing. We need to spread awareness and strengthen the existing vulture conservation initiatives undertaken by Wildlife ACT and their partners through Project Vulture and the Zululand Vulture Project,” said Chris Kelly, Wildlife ACT Co-founder and Director of Species Conservation.

Vultures play a vital role in our ecosystems by consuming rotting carcasses. This helps prevent the spread of disease and keeps the population of other scavengers in check.

They can feed on extremely rancid flesh thanks to powerful stomach acid which kills harmful bacteria, the only animal that can safely digest rotting meat.

At this stage, the lappet-faced species appears to be following a similar path to that of the Critically Endangered White-headed Vulture – a species recently announced to be locally extinct as a breeding population in KZN, with no nesting sites found during the 2021 surveys and preceding three years.

These are current vulture initiatives being carried out by Project Vulture and partners in KZN:

Population stabilisation and habitat protection through monitoring of vultures to accurately identify vulture hotspots, establishing and securing vulture safe zones, the protection and monitoring of nest sites, rapid response to poisoning events, training field operatives on how to handle poisoned birds to ensure they are saved and reducing vulture exposure to lead poisoning by phasing out of lead-based ammunition and the safe disposal of lead-contaminated carcasses.

Education and community conservation through education programs, especially to the youth, about the role vultures play in the ecosystem and the value they provide, researching the drivers and demand for vulture parts in the traditional medicine sector, development of meaningful demand-reduction campaigns which will lead to the reduction of vulture poisoning for their body parts.

Improved advocacy through training field operatives on how to handle poisoning (crime) scenes to ensure convictions can occur, working with the provincial and judicial authorities to improve law enforcement and judicial processes, researching the economic value of the species to further advocate for their protection.

Help to support these critical projects and the organisations that work to protect these species by donating valuable funds towards the work on the ground.