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Status, conservation and captive breeding of Bearded Vultures in Southern Africa

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Feeding chick with a Bearded Vulture puppet to avoid human imprinting (c) Bred4theWild

The Bearded Vulture breeding season is coming to an end in the northern hemisphere but in the southern hemisphere, the breeding season of the species is just starting! This blog post will look into the population status of the species in Southern Africa, conservation and monitoring actions, and the captive breeding programme that aims to boost the population of the species. 

Status of Bearded Vultures in Southern Africa 

South Africa and Lesotho are home to the African Bearded Vulture sub-species, which is considered Critically Endangered in Southern Africa. Between 2000 and 2012, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife conducted a survey and recorded 190 territories of which 109 were still occupied by 2012. The number of occupied breeding territories decreased by a minimum of 32% and a maximum of 51% over the past five decades. The breeding range decreased by 27%, and breeding densities also decreased by 20%. The current population is estimated at a minimum of 313 and a maximum of 380 individuals. If all known 190 territories were occupied in the past, then the population was probably around 650 individuals that occurred across the region. Now the population is a small and isolated one, restricted to the maloti-Drakensberg mountains. 

Threats to Bearded Vultures in Southern Africa

Initially, the persecution and habitat loss caused the decline of Bearded Vultures, but in recent years the primary threats to the species are poisoning and secondarily collisions with powerlines. The poisoning is either intentional- to kill the birds because they are thought to eat lambs (some people still believe that) and people also kill them for belief-based uses (traditional medicine and superstitions). The poisoning is mainly unintentional- they are poisoned when they feed on poison baits meant for carnivores. Lead poisoning has also been shown to be a problem in the population. 

Conservation of Bearded Vultures in Southern Africa: The Bearded Vulture Recovery Programme

Bearded Vulture adult with tracker (c) Shane Elliott

There is a management plan for the species/population in place that has over 100 actions and has been developed along the lines of the Vulture Multi-Species Action Plan (Vulture MsAP). A bilateral (Lesotho and South Africa) group meets twice a year to discuss the implementation of the plan, and each country also has a National Vulture Task Force where country-specific actions and interventions are discussed. 

The group undertakes annual monitoring of nest sites in both countries from the ground and also by helicopter. Not all sites can be checked every year, but they cover all sites at least every few years. A percentage of some sites are checked more intensively to determine productivity. They also undertake regular monitoring at some supplementary feeding sites, either by camera or people. The group tracked 25 individuals over the past 12+ years to determine causes of mortality and obtain more information on their movements and home ranges to help implement targeted conservation efforts. 

To tackle the threat of poisoning, the group carries out intervention training to enable quick reaction to poisoning event to help reduce mortalities. Some courses have been undertaken on human-wildlife conflict management to allow officials to offer farmers alternatives to poisoning predators. 

More research is also being carried out on belief-based use to try and better understand the trade so that this threat can be addressed. 

The group also identifies hazardous powerlines to be retrofitted, and attach raptor protectors and mitigation devices are attached to make them more visible to the birds and prevent collisions. New lines need to have impact studies which will include mitigation devices, so they are engaging with environmental impact practitioners and the energy suppliers. Risk models have also been developed to assist with the siting of windfarms in areas where impacts to the birds will be lowest. 

The group also keeps a database of all feeding site managers and interacts with these to ensure that they are providing safe food for the birds. They work with veterinarians too to make sure that all carcasses fed to vultures are free of any NSAIDs and harmful substances. 

In addition to these conservation actions, the group has identified the need for a captive breeding programme.

Captive Breeding of Bearded Vultures in Southern Africa

(c) Bred4theWild

In response to the declining population and the threats to the Bearded Vultures in Southern Africa, the African Raptor Centre based near Durban in South Africa began  #Bred4theWild back in 2015 — an ambitious conservation programme. This programme will involve the captive-breeding of Bearded Vultures along the same lines as the Bearded Vulture European Endangered Species Programme – the captive breeding network we here at the Vulture Conservation Foundation coordinate. 

The programme aims to create a genetically viable captive population from 20-30 non-related founder birds over the upcoming years. These founder birds will be used to breed young birds that can be released back into the wild. In 2015, the only Bearded Vulture in captivity was an adult female, Lesli, who was rescued from a traditional healer. So to achieve this aim, conservationists from the African Raptor Centre need to harvest second eggs from wild nests. Bearded Vultures usually produce a clutch of two eggs, but will only raise one young. The team can take the second egg from the nest without affecting the wild birds and raise the chick in captivity.

Learn more about Project Vulture, a platform that brings the efforts of vulture conservationists together in Africa. 

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