The resurrection of a controversial proposed wind power project in the Lesotho Highlands could wipe out the critically-endangered Bearded vulture and endangered Cape vulture.
This is the fear of BirdLife SA, which warns that likely collisions with the blades of around 40 large wind turbines at the planned site near Leteng-La-Terae could push the region's iconic Bearded vulture population to extinction.
Situated to the west of the Maloti Drakensberg Transboundary World Heritage Site, it sits in the heart of vital breeding, roosting and foraging grounds for both bird species.
It's well known from international studies that vultures are prone to colliding with wind turbines, says BirdLife SA.
“Population models suggest that even small increases in mortality from wind farms in the Lesotho Highlands could hasten the local extinction of both the Bearded vulture and the Cape vulture.”
More than four years ago, BirdLife SA, along with other conservation groups, fought plans by PowerNET Developments, a consortium of local and Lesotho developers, for the planned development.
However, in 2013 the project received a one-year environmental clearance from the Lesotho Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture to allow for bird mortality risks to be further assessed.
UK-based firm AGR-Renewables has now “unfortunately resurrected” the project. The firm, however, maintains that it is an experienced and responsible renewable energy developer.
“We have delivered a number of wind and solar energy projects in the UK over the last years, all in line with the environmental standards required under the UK planning system,” says Tom Forsyth of AGR-Renewables.
But Samantha Ralston-Paton, BirdLife SA’s birds and renewable energy manager, insists the project is too hazardous for the region's Bearded vulture population, which is small and declining.
“This is a classic example of where not to site a wind farm and we're extremely concerned about the negative precedent this wind farm would set.”
Bearded vultures occur in two isolated populations in sub-Saharan Africa, one in the Ethiopian Highlands and the other in the Drakensberg/Maloti mountains of South Africa and Lesotho, where there are only 100 breeding pairs left. The region comprises 44% of the South African and Lesotho population of the endemic Cape Vulture species.
A 2011 avifaunal study prepared as part of the environmental impact assessment process deemed the project to be “fatally flawed”, warning how globally significant populations of Bearded vultures and Cape vultures nest on the Drakensberg escarpment “and will certainly range extensively over the proposed development site. “As large, slope-soaring species, they are highly susceptible to collision with wind turbines. Likely mortality rates could be sufficient to destabilise populations, possibly resulting in localised or even regional extinction.”
Jonathan Booth, BirdLife SA’s policy and advocacy officer, says in a recent meeting with AGR-Renewables, it could not clarify the legal status of the project. “Efforts to confirm this with authorities in Lesotho have gone unanswered. We have reason to believe the initial environmental authorisation is no longer valid.
“What we do know is that they are considering an unproven strategy to mitigate impacts. This is completely inappropriate. There are alternative sites and technologies available to help meet Lesotho’s energy needs.”
Forsyth says the Letseng project received an environmental authorisation in 2013. “We are fully aware of the concerns that have been raised with respect to the project both now and in the past.
“We feel an intensive programme of bird monitoring - something that has hitherto not been carried out - is the very first thing that needs to be done to evaluate the potential impact of the project and the suitability or otherwise of the site to accommodate the proposed wind farm.
“In this respect, we're doing what BirdLife and others have called for in the past. We are in ‘fact gathering’ mode and fully intend to share our findings with BirdLife and others.
“We have employed a team of experienced avian specialists and local partners to carry out the monitoring and data collection in line with best practice guidelines for avifaunal monitoring and impact mitigation and have designed a vulture restaurant feeding programme as part of the mitigation strategy.
“We hope to demonstrate a net gain to the key vulture species in the region. It's proposed the mitigation strategy will be implemented for the lifetime of the project and will require a full-time manager dedicated to ensuring the programme is running as designed,” Forsyth says.
A recent World Heritage Outlook Report for the Maloti-Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site highlighted how “possible developments near the site (e.g. wind farms) could have severe impacts on its values”.
Wind turbines have already added to the numerous threats the two vulture species face, with several fatalities recorded in the Eastern Cape, adds Booth. “It's simply a risk not worth taking.”
A key approach to minimising the risk of developments is to apply the “mitigation hierarchy”, she says. “First avoid, minimise and then mitigate. This project has not done that.
“We have sufficient information to be pretty sure the area around Letseng is not suitable for wind farm development and had the developer and their environmental consultant done their homework (site screening), they would have known this too. Most reputable developers would have walked away from the project.”