Development could further endanger the Southern Africa’s rare bearded vultures
Globally, two distinct subspecies of bearded vulture are recognized – G. b. barbatus, in Europe, Asia and North Africa), and G. b. merodionalis, in Ethiopia, east Africa (where only a few pairs remain) and southern Africa.
In southern Africa bearded vultures have declined by 30-50% in the last few decades. Currently it is estimated that only 352-390 bearded vultures live in the region, and the species has therefore been classified as Critically Endangered in the red data list for the birds of southern Africa.
Now, some of these birds are further threatened by a new wind-farm in the Maloti Mountains, recently approved by the Lesotho government. The proposed development – 42 850KW turbines and associated infrastructure such as powerlines, substations and access roads, is within the breeding and foraging range of several bearded vultures and also some endemic Cape Vulture Coprotheres Gyps.
In general, conservation NGOs and the VCF favour renewable energy, as a way to minimise climate change, which also has severe consequences on biodiversity and vultures, but extra care should be exercised when planning the location of wind farms, as these developments are known to have severe impacts on bats, migrating birds, and soaring raptors, including vultures. Thus, a proper assessment should be made, including all the provisions included in national and international legislations.
In this case, evidence that the site selected for the development was not ideal is overwhelming – Ian Rushworth and Sonja Krüger, from Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, prepared a Population Viability Analysis modeling the potential impacts of this development on the Bearded Vulture population, and these were very serious. These researchers used data from ten Bearded Vultures fitted with solar-powered satellite tags to determine the size and location of the core foraging range of the species as well as the speed of travel and height above ground at which they forage.
The modeling found out that Bearded Vultures actively select ridge tops and upper slopes like the one where the wind-farm will be built, and spend at least half their foraging time less than 100 m above ground level, within the blade swept height of the proposed development, and hence at risk of collision. This, coupled with a small, isolated and declining population, means that wind farm developments in the Lesotho highlands, even at a modest scale, may have a catastrophic impact on this species. Because of their low reproductive rate and long life span, this population will be unable to recover from an accumulative loss of individuals.
However,preliminary clearance has now been given, subject to a one year study via a radar system, to assess bird mortality risks. The VCF adds its voice to colleagues in Southern Africa asking the Department of Environment of the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture in Lesotho to take seriously the results of this radar study and revoke the permit if impacts on vultures that are beyond mitigation are clearly identified.