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Vulture Heritage Programme

The SA Hunters and Game Conservation Association has launched a vulture conservation project, The Vulture Heritage Programme, as part of its ongoing commitment to conserve South Africa’s wildlife heritage.

Vultures provide critically important ecosystem services by cleaning up carcasses and reducing the risk of the spread of diseases, resulting in economic and health benefits to people. However, worldwide, vultures are among the most threatened group of birds with most species declining and many facing extinction. The ongoing decline of the six vulture species found in South Africa is alarming. Persecution, electrocution, poisoning, and illegal trade in vulture body parts for use in traditional medicine are some of the main reasons for this negative trend.

SA Hunters’ Vulture Heritage Programme include various initiatives towards vulture conservation.

SA Hunters is a member of the National Vulture Task Force that has been established by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) to guide vulture conservation in South Africa. Following the recommendation from the Vulture Task Force, South Africa adopted a multi-species approach to vulture conservation as opposed to developing individual biodiversity management plans (BMP) for each vulture species as the threats are often very similar for the different species.

Under the guidance of the National Vulture Task Force, a Multi-Species Action Plan for vultures is receiving attention. The vision of the action plan is to have healthy growing populations of vultures in South Africa, fulfilling essential biological, cultural and ecosystem functions and services. It also makes provision for identifying and ranking threats to vultures, based on the potential extent of the threats, the likelihood of the threats having a significant impact on vulture populations, and the potential of mitigating the impacts. The action plan aims to promote greater synergy between various role-players involved in conserving vultures, ensuring greater efficiency in the use of resources and capacity to achieve positive outcomes.

The Vulture Task Force also monitor the implementation of the existing Biodiversity Management Plan for Bearded Vultures that facilitates collaboration between Lesotho and South Africa. The objective of the BMP is to ensure the long-term survival of Bearded vultures by preventing further population declines and stabilising their numbers at the current population size of approximately 100 breeding pairs. Critical success factors for the achievement of the longer-term target of approximately 150 breeding pairs, have been identified and are receiving attention. Although a positive growth rate has not yet been achieved, research on the status, food availability, genetics, threats, and areas of conservation importance have been conducted. However, resource and capacity challenges experienced by key role players such as Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, are impeding progress. This highlights the importance of support for vulture conservation initiatives from civil society and organisations such as SA Hunters.

Poisoning and trade in traditional medicines account for approximately 90% of reported deaths in vultures. A National Wildlife Poison Prevention Working Group (NWPPWG) has been established under the auspices of DFFE to address this impact, as well as other wildlife poisoning incidents towards safeguarding wildlife from harmful poisonous substances. The working group consists of conservation agencies, government departments, NGOs and special interest groups. SA Hunters’ membership of this working group is a result of the association’s track record in promoting conservation and responsible wildlife utilisation. Another special interest group that is represented on the working group is the Traditional Healers Association, which is important as vultures are used in traditional medicines in many communities. All role players collaborate to identify risks and develop meaningful solutions.

SA Hunters is a founder member of the National Lead Task Team (LTT), which is one of the task teams of the NWPPW. As a responsible hunting organisation, SA Hunters wants to ensure open and robust discussions towards finding solutions to lead poisoning in wildlife. There is increasing international and local concern about the negative impacts of unintentional lead-based poisoning of wildlife resulting from the use of lead-based ammunition and sinkers. A lack of information and open and honest discussions and collaboration between all role players, can lead to polarisation on this matter, which is not conducive to mitigate the risks to wildlife and ensure the long-term survival of threatened species.

The lead task team was established to create a platform for relevant role players to engage constructively to improve their understanding of the risks, challenges, and best approaches towards reducing the risks of harm to wildlife from exposure to lead from all significant sources. There is evidence that lead fragments from lead-based ammunition used in wildlife management, hunting and farming practices can harm wildlife. When carcasses of animals shot with lead-based ammunition are donated to vulture restaurants or left in the veld to support scavengers, it poses a risk to vultures and other scavengers. SA Hunters, together with the rest of the task team, is developing a series of informative documents that can raise awareness among users of lead-based ammunition to reduce risks to wildlife, including vultures. SA Hunters is further leading a process to improve the availability of affordable leadfree ammunition for most commonly used rifle calibres and shotguns in South Africa.

In addition to taking part in the above-mentioned national processes, SA Hunters has a number of other initiatives that support vulture conservation. Its General De la Rey Branch is managing a very active vulture restaurant near Lichtenburg with up to 200 vultures visiting the site at times. Sourcing and collecting of suitable risk-free carcasses to feed vultures is an ongoing task. Only after ensuring that carcasses are safe and free from any harmful substances, are they made available to the birds. Fresh water for drinking and bathing is also provided. Poisoned and electrocuted vultures are collected and attended to in collaboration with Vulpro Rehabilitation Centre. Injured and ill birds are taken to the centre for treatment, rehabilitation and release, where possible.

The De la Rey Branch has a youth development initiative that create awareness about vulture conservation among children. The children are introduced to vultures at the vulture restaurant where the birds can be viewed from a strategically positioned hide. They are taught about the biology of the birds, threats and measures to reduce human-induced impacts. Once they can correctly identify the different vulture species, the children become part of the broader membership of SA Hunters that document sightings of vultures and raise awareness. Mopani Branch in the Lowveld has also established a safe vulture restaurant and is conducting local vulture awareness and support activities.

To improve our knowledge of the distribution, breeding, biology, and poisoning, and electrocution incidents of vultures, SA Hunters included a section for the recording of vulture sightings in a smartphone App that is being developed in-house, which will enable members to capture sightings of rare and threatened species. This data will be used to support important vulture conservation efforts.

Vultures roam the skies and cover very large areas. However, developments result in the availability of safe resting, feeding and nesting sites becoming increasingly scarce. As a result, SA Hunters recently initiated the Vulture Heritage Site initiative working towards developing greater awareness on vulture conservation challenges and opportunities for landowners to become involved.

Interested landowners can register their land as vulture heritage sites with SA Hunters at no cost when they undertake to support vulture conservation by:

  • protecting breeding sites on their land;
  • securing safe feeding and drinking sites for vultures on their properties;
  • assisting with annual monitoring of the birds on their land; and
  • ensuring that hunting and wildlife management activities on their land do not pose a risk to vultures.

Any carcass that may contain even the smallest lead particles from lead-based ammunition, should not be donated to vulture restaurants or be left in the veld where it is available to scavengers. Carcasses containing lead are a risk to vultures, scavengers and other wildlife and should be removed from the veld. Vultures, however, need support in the provision of clean water and safe carcasses, free from lead and veterinary medicines such as diclofenac.

In return, SA Hunters will provide landowners with a certificate of recognition for participation in vulture conservation, and information and support on vulture related matters in collaboration with conservation partners. This includes support with monitoring and rescuing of injured birds.

The declining numbers of vultures should be a concern for each and every citizen. Since its inception in 1949, the SA Hunters and Game Conservation Association has been committed to conservation. One cannot live off the land and spend long hours in the veld and not develop an understanding and deep connection with nature. The association will continue in its commitment to vulture conservation and invite the public and other role players in the wildlife sector, locally and in neighbouring countries, to join SA Hunters’ concerted efforts in conserving these magnificent birds.

For more information about the Vulture Heritage Programme and opportunities to get involved, the conservation manager of SA Hunters, Lizanne Nel, can be contacted at lizanne@sahunt.co.za

The public can also donate to the conservation trust:

Account Name:  Tinyarhi Trust
Bank:  ABSA
Account number:  4093220340

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