South African Bird of the Year Needs Protection

Most visitors to large conservation areas set out to tick the Big Five mammals off their lists. In the world of birds, six prominent species are part of the Big Six bird list. The lappet-faced vulture forms part of this list.

Words by René de Klerk. Photograph by Mark Anderson. Originally published in SANParks Times.

It was only natural that this bird, sought after as a sighting for many birders, was selected as BirdLife South Africa’s 2017 Bird of the Year.

The lappet-faced vulture is suffering the same fate as most other vulture species: its numbers are declining. Just last year, this giant was uplisted to “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red data list due to this decline.

This Bird of the Year initiative started more than 10 years ago, and also serves to inform and educate the public about the selected species.  “The various awareness methods that are used all contribute to raising awareness about birds and the environment,” says Mark Anderson, CEO of BirdLife South Africa. The initiative distributes posters to schools and libraries. Pin badges made annually to depict the bird each year have become collectors’ items. In addition, BirdLife South Africa also provides lesson plans, used by teachers across the country, on their annual choice.

In many parts of Africa, lappet-faced vulture numbers have dwindled drastically. Historically, they occurred in habitats from Cape Town to the south of the Mediterranean. But they are now extinct in a number of countries and territories, including Western Sahara, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Numbers are extremely low in Egypt and major decreases have been recorded in Nigeria. Just recently, lappet-faced vultures became extinct in Israel and Jordan.

Despite this, there is still hope. According to Anderson, “the Kruger National Park and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park offer strongholds for the species.” Conservation efforts in the Northern Cape might be paying off as recent increases there are linked to improved landowner attitudes towards and better acceptance of the birds, he says. Further afield, the Etosha and Namib protected areas in Namibia, Gonarezhou in Zimbabwe, and the Serengeti and Mara regions of Tanzania and Kenya still offer safe havens for the species.

Just like most other vulture species, the biggest threats to their numbers include poisoning, disturbance at nests, food shortages, electrocution and even drowning in concrete farm reservoirs.

The last recorded lappet-faced vulture numbers were estimated at around 8 000, but this number is outdated. Many research programmes and conservation initiatives are now focusing their attention on vultures. Anti-poisoning field teams are being deployed in worst-affected areas in an attempt to curb these devastating incidents. In South Africa, Eskom is changing their power infrastructure to make it friendlier towards vultures. But these are only the first small steps towards the major changes needed to ensure a future for the species.

 

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