Endangered Vulture Nesting Sites Drop to Less Than Half in 2021 in KZN, South Africa
Endangered Vulture Nesting Sites Drop to Less Than Half in 2021 in KZN, South Africa. Video screenshot

Vultures across Africa and the globe are experiencing population declines. This is no different in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa – the southernmost breeding range of three of the tree-nesting Vulture species. (See video below.)

KZN’s vulture population contributes significantly to South Africa’s breeding population, located within the breeding range for all three tree nesting species. Considering the ecosystem services vultures play, these populations are especially important in the context of KZN’s mixed land-use, with a mosaic of agriculture, residential and protected areas.

Lappet-Faced Vulture Faces Dramatic Population Decline

One species, the Lappet-Faced Vulture, the largest of the vultures and listed as endangered on the IUCN red list, is experiencing a current and dramatic population decline. After intensive aerial surveys carried out by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Wildlife ACT in September 2021, nest counts for Lappet-Faced Vultures have indicated an alarming decrease from 15 active nests in 2020 to only 6 in 2021.

most probably attributed to the numerous poisoning events

“The 2021 vulture breeding continues to disappoint. Confirming zero White-Headed Vultures breeding in the province and a considerable decline in breeding Lappet’s is of grave concern. This decline is most probably attributed to the numerous poisoning events that have occurred in the latter part of 2020 and throughout 2021”. Brent Coverdale, Large Mammal and Bird Scientist for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

Recently, a poisoned Lappet-Faced Vulture in the Northern breeding cluster was reported to the Zululand Vulture Project. Wildlife ACT’s Emergency Response Team subsequently followed up on the nearest known Lappet-Faced Vulture nest in the area to determine whether the chick was still alive and if any adults were present. Sadly, the large chick was found dead on the nest, suspected to have died from starvation due to the possible death of the parent birds.

Aerial view of the dead Lapped-Faced Vulture chick found on the nest. Photo credit: PJ Roberts, Wildlife ACT
Aerial view of the dead Lapped-Faced Vulture chick found on the nest. Photo credit: PJ Roberts, Wildlife ACT

This nest was the only known one to be active in the northern cluster during this year’s breeding season. It belonged to a known Vulture that was ringed as a chick in 2016 and fitted with a solar-powered GPS tracking unit and patagial tags in May 2020. This individual’s GPS unit dropped off the grid in early October and the bird has not been seen again. It is possible that the single remaining parent was attempting to rear the chick until it too succumbed to a poisoning event.

This devastating event, together with another nest mortality recorded earlier in the season, has reduced the known active Lappet-Faced Vulture nests to only 4 individuals that fledged, in the province, for this breeding season.

Aerial view of the dead Lapped-Faced Vulture chick found on the nest. Photo credit: PJ Roberts, Wildlife ACT
Dead Lapped-Faced Vulture found in the Northern breeding cluster of KwaZulu-Natal. Photo credit: PJ Roberts, Wildlife ACT

At this stage, the Lappet-Faced species appears to be following a similar path to that of the Critically Endangered White-Headed Vulture – a species recently announced to be locally extinct as a breeding population in KZN, with no nesting sites found during the 2021 surveys and preceding three years.

Chris Kelly, Species Conservation Director, Wildlife ACT, says:

“Vultures are extremely important in the role that they play in our ecosystems. Being incredible scavengers, they are remarkably efficient at disposing of rotting carcasses and reducing the spread of disease amongst wildlife, livestock and to humans. This crucial ecosystem service that vultures provide in our environment is grossly underestimated and goes largely underappreciated as, without the presence of vultures, carcasses will remain exposed to the environment for weeks. Vultures therefore play a critical role in abating the ever-increasing global risk of pathogen spill overs to humans.”

Through Project Vulture, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Wildlife ACT carry out a multi-pronged approach to their conservation. Proactively, Project Vulture is working to better understand the species movements and range, working with landowners to protect crucial habitat and provide safe feeding sites in vulture hotspots in and between protected areas. In addition, advocacy and awareness programmes are implemented to build a better understanding of the importance of these species, with this work guided by research into the current perceptions and uses of vultures. In addition, an emergency response team reacts swiftly to incidents on the ground, aiming to reduce immediate threats to vulture populations.

This is an urgent plea for support towards the conservation work needed to save these species that are so important to human population health and the economy.

What can you do?

WATCH Vulture Conservation with Wildlife ACT