SERIES ON OUR THREATENED SPECIES: THE CAPE VULTURE
Posted on the 24th July 2013
(The BirdLife Overberg committee members have decided to publish a monthly article on some of the threatened bird species of South Africa. Committee member Keir Lynch is drafting these articles. These articles are not yet edited, but will become part of the desk calender for 2014 that BLO is developing to raise funds for conservation projects. - Ed.)
Few will ever forget their first encounter with a vulture. My first glimpse of a Bearded Vulture gliding along mountain peaks in the Drakensberg and the massed frenzy of numerous species of vulture struggling to gain access to a carcass in the Lowveld, will be etched into my memory forever. They are some of the most incredible moments I have been privileged to experience in nature. But the stark reality is that for future generations the possibilities to encounter these species will be few and far between. We will never experience the grandeur of Egyptian Vulture on the cliff faces of Table Mountain again; in fact, one would count ourselves lucky to see the species within southern Africa, where it is now possibly regionally extinct as a breeding species. This may be a portent of things to come as several of the resident species within southern Africa are now threatened with extinction, and while refuges still remain for these species elsewhere in Africa, they are by no means secured. Of great concern to conservationists is the only endemic vulture to southern Africa, a species whose ultimate survival is increasingly doubtful, the Cape Vulture, Gyps coprotheres.
The southern African population occurs throughout Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and South Africa. While colonies still occur throughout the region they are in decline and in certain cases no longer consist of breeding colonies. The total population is now practically limited to 18 core colonies accounting for over 80 % of the species. Estimates place 95 % of the Cape Vulture population in South Africa, while recent efforts to count all colonies in 2011 resulted in a tally of 2 848 breeding pairs.
As with all vultures the ability to forage within an increasingly fragmented and transformed landscape is one of the core issues exposing the Cape Vulture to the risk of extinction. As a carrion feeder on larger carcasses the conversion of large tracts of land to agriculture coupled with ever improving animal husbandry practices, simply mean that the food resources are not adequate, especially near nesting colonies. The increased use of agro-chemicals may lead to inadvertent poisoning and water provisioning in deep, open reservoirs trap the birds and cause drowning. In order to secure food resources foraging ranges are expanded and the increase exposes the birds to power line collisions, a major cause of fatalities. The need for clean energy options such as wind farms will require attention and research is imperative to minimise impacts. Wind farms have decimated populations of the Eurasian Griffon Vulture in Spain, the last stronghold of the species in Europe; and may pose significant threats to the Cape Vulture within South Africa.
The conservation challenges abound and a cross disciplinary approach is required to ensure the survival of the species. The last remaining colony of Cape Vulture in the Western Cape, situated at Potberg in De Hoop Nature Reserve, illustrates this point. Local farmers have responded to encouragement to leave carcasses in accessible sites in the agricultural landscape, providing food for the colony. This has lead to a steady increase in the population which now numbers over two hundred birds. Though by no means securing their future, it provides hope to this severely threatened species.