WATCH: Shaping Southern Africa’s greatest sanctuary for transfrontier vultures

As raptors go, vultures have had a seriously bad rap, says the writer. File Picture: AP

As raptors go, vultures have had a seriously bad rap, says the writer. File Picture: AP

Published Sep 8, 2022


In an innovative partnership with Birdlife South Africa, the Peace Park Foundation’s progress in restoring Zinave National Park clearly portrays how the value of nature is able to nurture vultures when allowed the opportunity to do so.

Georgie Pearce, communications officer at the Peace Parks Foundation explains that “Zinave National Park, which owns precious shares in the greater space of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA), has been a biodiversity work-in-progress and inspiration since 2016 when Mozambique’s National Administration for Conservation Areas and Peace Parks’ long-term agreement to co-manage the 408 000 ha open system, came about.”

So began an intensive programme to operationally rebuild and ecologically restore the park.

Following transformative infrastructure, conservation management and law enforcement enhancements, more than 2 300 game animals representing 14 different species were reintroduced into the park.

This has resulted in the development of an ecosystem and food chain which is now ready to safely embrace vultures, including two two endangered species.

“To do so effectively, Zinave had become a Vulture Safe Zone (VSZ), the largest of its kind in southern Africa. This collaborative project between Peace Parks and BirdLife South Africa is the latest adventure for an emerging park in fulfilling its rich potential; an especially challenging and exciting opportunity for a number of reasons,” Pearce said.

As raptors go, vultures have had a seriously bad rap. Branded bottom-feeders, poachers’ whistle-blowers and totems of muti power, they have been intentionally used and abused, and exposed to incidental risk.

All of southern Africa’s vulture species have experienced negative impacts which have left four species listed as critically endangered by the IUCN’s Red List and BirdLife International.

If vultures disappeared from the landscape, more than just the mighty scavengers would fall.

Pearce explains that rotting carcasses would then be eaten by disease-causing agents such as stray dogs, rats and mice which then become a serious health risk to other animals as well as humans.

Compounding the consequences of this, the absence of vultures could see the guild of scavenging mammals, such as jackal and feral dogs, exploit the new abundance of carrion, proliferate and further amplify disease risk.

Throughout Southern African habitats, vultures sweep into the feeding system’s pecking order and work it uniquely – but never in isolation. The subtleties of these interactions between elements, and species, are so ingenious that they’re often overlooked and undervalued.

Hyenas play a vital role in the natural environment. Picture: PatternPictures/ Pixabay

Studies have found that vultures have a reciprocal relationship with hyenas, two African scavengers with mutual benefits. The bone-crushing, characteristic feeding behaviour of hyenas, feeds directly into vultures’ systems, making carcasses more accessible, therefore nutrients are more available.

Pearce notes with excitement that a recent vulture exposé published in the Journal of Animal Ecology revealed how these dynamics play out in the hyenas’ favour in return. Hyenas, jackals and other ground-based scavengers used soaring birds of prey as their eyes in the sky to find their next meal.

The study revealed that both jackals and hyenas were spying on vultures, gaining valuable information about carrion resources, and how to find the bigger spoils, faster.

Jackals work in unison with vultures when it comes to scavenging. Picture: Montavigus/ Pixabay

Impressively, they could differentiate between vultures signalling relatively large dead animals, and eagles, which look similar but prefer smaller prey.

Pearce concluded that “the commitment to protect such a boundless species is a complex and overwhelming one, but above all, an exciting big picture for these tragically underestimated raptors.

“It is more than just a story of birds, the cycle of nutrients, or the reputation of an emerging park. It’s about the safety of a uniquely special place which sits right at the heart of a much broader circle of life,” he said.

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