Savanna Vulture Project

Birdwatching on Safari in the Kruger National Park is an opportunity to see a staggering estimated 500 species of birds!  Although a large percentage of birds seen in the Kruger National Park are summer visitors, many are resident and can be viewed all year round.

The large flesh-eating birds of prey are normally the most exciting for visitors to view, vultures are among the most dramatic raptors. To watch vultures at a kill is like witnessing the unbridled nature of food politics. Vultures are, however, great ecologists, having a high sense of personal hygiene.  They clean the veld of carrion, thereby minimising the impact of animal disease, and they bathe regularly in rivers after gorging themselves at a kill.

The Greater Kruger National Park is home to breeding populations of five vulture species, which makes it the perfect place for studying and monitoring these birds. These vultures, like the lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotus) and the Cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres), are either endangered or critically endangered. Others include the white-headed vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis), the hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus) and the white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus). Once widespread across Africa, vultures are now going through unprecedented declines across the continent. The Greater Kruger National Park is a stronghold for the species in Southern Africa.

A decade ago, the status of vultures in the Greater Kruger National Park was poorly understood. The Endangered Wildlife Trust and the Hawk Conservancy Trust (UK) recognised this knowledge gap and in 2007, they registered the three-year Savanna Vulture Project with SANParks to assess population status, breeding success and survival of tree-nesting vulture species in the Greater Kruger National Park.

One of the project’s aims was to find out where vultures are breeding, but the vast area that needed to be searched, made this work an expensive logistical challenge. Luckily, with SANParks’ permission, and with the generous support of The Bateleurs and Eugene Couzyn, who piloted his Gazelle helicopter, aerial censuses were conducted in the Kruger National Park to find and record vulture nests. All the Kruger was surveyed between 2011 and 2014, and important information on the numbers of breeding vultures was gathered: whitebacked vulture – 892 breeding pairs; white-headed vulture – 48 breeding pairs; and lappet-faced vulture – 44 breeding pairs.

Hooded vultures have been studied in the Kruger National Park since 2016, when a collaborative project was registered with SANParks, which involved the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Birds of Prey Programme, the Hawk Conservancy Trust, and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (USA). Hooded vultures are widespread throughout Africa but are declining rapidly and at the time, relatively little was known about them. Our work has shown that they are very attentive parents, but despite all the care and commitment by parent birds, hooded vulture chicks and eggs are preyed on at nests, and so camera traps are used to monitor breeding success at hooded vulture nests in the Greater Kruger National Park.

Measurements at hooded vultures’ nesting trees were taken to help understand what it is about particular trees that make them attractive nesting sites. This knowledge will enable the highlighting of areas that may be used for breeding in the future, and which may need better protection. Despite being seemingly common in the Greater Kruger National Park, this area is in fact the only place that hooded vultures are regularly found in South Africa. For the past three years, road surveys in the Kruger National Park have been carried out, which involves driving at a constant, slow speed along a set route, and recording the location and species of every vulture seen. These surveys, repeated in different seasons and years, will reveal if vulture numbers are declining, stable, or increasing.

The results from the Savanna Vulture Project have greatly improved our general understanding of what is needed to conserve vultures in the Greater Kruger National Park. These findings have also informed the Multi-species Action Plan for Africa-Eurasian Vultures, which will guide conservation actions for these birds in Southern Africa. Today, work continues on various aspects of vulture biology in the Lowveld.

In Shangaan folklore the vulture, Koti , is associated with dreams and the ability to see into the future.  At Jock Safari Lodge, we support all endeavours to study and conserve vultures so that future generations will be able to see them too.

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