In the southern hemisphere, the last remaining population of Bearded Vulture resides isolated in the high Maluti-Drakensberg mountains of Lesotho and South Africa. This African sub-species, (Gypaetus barbatus meridionalis), has in recent history suffered more than a 30% population decline and is listed regionally as endangered. There are estimated to be 100 breeding pairs and a total population of only 320 birds left in the wild.
Bearded Vultures are threatened by multiple factors. They collide with, or get electrocuted by power-lines. They get poisoned when ingesting poisoned bait that is put out by farmers for jackal. Their body parts are also used in the traditional muthi industry and, as if this is not enough, the latest threat looming is the proposal of wind farms in the high mountain areas of Lesotho. These massive turbines, while providing a quick and renewable form of energy, have proved lethal to flying birds utilizing the same wind corridors. The construction of one such wind farm, made up of 200 turbines, is planned for in the very core of the Bearded Vultures’ home range. KZN Wildlife ecologists predict that if they go ahead with the proposed development the Bearded Vulture will be gone from our skies in 14 years!
The African Raptor Trust is embarking on what will be its biggest and most important project to implement active conservation measures to promote the survival of this unique and magnificent raptor.
Many of the factors threatening Bearded Vultures today are human induced and in order for this species to survive, implemented education and public awareness objectives must lead to attitude and behaviour change. A project goal therefore, is to create a general public that was not only informed about Bearded Vultures, but appreciative enough of the species to want to take active part in their custodianship. While this may be an extremely challenging aspiration, the iconic nature of the bearded vulture and its unique characteristics make it certainly worthy of the attempt.
The only Bearded Vulture currently in captivity in the southern hemisphere is a non-releasable female based at the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary. Confiscated from a sangoma, she is not able to fly and so will spear-head this awareness campaign and later join a captive breeding program.
The establishment of a captive breeding program will create a genetic reservoir to supplement dwindling wild populations and to safeguard against species extinction. This pro-active approach has been successfully accomplished in Europe with the northern Bearded Vultures. Project success rate should, therefore be high, as we would be replicating and building on established conservation breeding methods.
Bearded vultures breed in winter and, while they lay two eggs, only a single chick is raised. We propose that some of these biologically redundant second eggs be carefully harvested and the chicks be raised by surrogate European parent birds at the Sanctuary. A genetically-viable founder population of 20 captive birds will be created over the next five years. These youngsters will, in turn, be ready to breed at five or six years of age. This means that young vultures bred will be released into safe wild areas from the year 2018 onwards.
The challenge of harvesting second eggs from the high mountain cliffs, the lengthy time span before project results are seen and the high costs of operations have, in the past, made us cautious of such a breeding venture. The continued decline of the species brings us to a place, however, where we almost have no choice. We either watch the demise of these awesome birds or we stand up, stand together and try to do something to rectify the situation. The time is now!
While certainly ambitious, the Bearded Vulture Conservation Project is exciting and achievable and, if we implement processes now, we may be able to avert a later crisis and the extinction of this magnificent vulture. The funding that we need over the next five years runs into millions. The process and planning for this is formal and slow and will be made up of many partners. The need, however, is urgent. We wish to harvest the first eggs in July 2013 and have much to do before then. The very first requirement is to build our ambassador girl a decent home with a cliff-face roost in the public section of the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary.
Please contact us if you wish to see the complete project plan and perhaps consider where you may be able to help; cash, your services or your product. Maybe you can provide a couple of bags of cement, provide a load of sand or maybe you are moved to donate a lump sum. It will all be of help and appreciated. If we break this project up into pieces we can pull it off. Get involved. We all have different resources, networks and skills. Maybe you know some-one, who knows some-one who knows a guy……….because after all we know a bearded lady!