By René de Klerk. Photographs by Shane Elliot.
Have you ever been fortunate enough to spot a bearded vulture in or around the Golden Gate Highlands National Park? Now critically endangered, the vultures not only play an important role in the food chain, but their beauty has captured the hearts of many.
Today there are around 400 individuals and 100 breeding pairs left in their home range which includes the national park and surrounding Maloti and Drakensberg Mountain ranges in Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal. At one stage, they occurred at high altitudes right down to the Western Cape.
Fortunately for these birds, there are dedicated conservationists fighting for their survival. The Bearded Vulture Task Force (BVTF) was established just over 10 years ago after monitoring showed a decline in numbers. Although these are small steps, there has been some much-needed progress.
The project has been responsible for fitting 25 individual birds with tracking devices, which collect data on their home ranges, movement and cause of death. In conjunction with this research project, they determined the number of breeding pairs and had the bearded vulture re-categorised as regionally Critically Endangered. “We are making people more aware of the plight of the species, although this is never enough,” says Sonja Krueger, founder of the BVTF.
Just recently, the project also implemented a captive-breeding project. Bearded vultures lay two eggs, but only one chick will ever survive. Chicks are then hand reared and fed using puppets. Currently, the project has three vultures in captivity. This will be expanded to include more captive birds which will form the breeding stock and the “insurance policy” to ensure that there are some birds in captivity should they go extinct in the wild. The off-spring of these captive birds will be considered for reintroduction back into the wild.
According to Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Bird of Prey Programme manager André Botha, the situation could have been much worse were the project not in place as the presence of wind turbines and power lines also present threats to these birds “With wind turbines planned in the Lesotho-highlands we have to be pro-active,” he says. According to Botha the captive breeding programme is a good approach for securing a future for the species.
As with most projects run by volunteers, there will always be challenges. “We have only a few people that are doing the work on a volunteer basis or in conjunction with their full-time jobs,” says Krueger. “We need a larger dedicated team and with a decent budget we can employ more people.” Other challenges include convincing farmers not to use poison to bait predators and addressing the use of vulture parts in traditional medicine.
Botha says that most species of vulture declined by more than 60% over the last 30 years but that his team is currently working on an initiative to implement across the African continent. “As long as there is hope, we will continue trying to protect all the vulture species in Africa,” Botha says.
The Maloti-Drakensberg Vulture Project focuses on conserving the Bearded vulture and the Cape Vulture. The Cape vulture is the only other cliff nesting vulture in the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains. The project is a collaboration and partnership between the national and provincial environmental agencies of South Africa and Lesotho and the Bearded Vulture Task Force of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Bird of Prey Programme.