By Peter Bridgeford, Co-ordinator, Vultures Namibia
To a vulture riding on the wind, soaring on motionless wings through the azure African sky, international boundaries are of no importance.
Vultures, unlike humans, don’t need a passport to travel over the lines drawn on a map, separating one community from another. The parched plains of the Etosha National Park, the lush, watery world of the Okavango, the Kruger Park bushveld; these are all part of a vulture’s world. Fortunately, conservationists realise this and international boundaries do not stop them from achieving their goals. While conservationists need passports to move from one country to another, their concern and work crosses many boundaries.
In Southern Africa, as in the rest of the world, vultures and other birds of prey have been and still are under threat from humans. These threats include the misuse of poison, habitat degradation, collisions with and electrocution by power lines, use in traditional medicines, drowning in farm reservoirs, direct persecution – the list goes on and on. These threats are not limited to Namibia, but affect vultures in neighbouring countries and those far beyond our borders.
There are many vulture species in Africa, and there are just as many organisations committed to protecting them. These organisations co-operate on many levels to ensure their work is not hindered by man-made boundaries. The oldest vulture conservation organisation in Southern Africa, started in 1973, is the Vulture Study Group, a part of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), with headquarters in Johannesburg. This group, through local representatives, operates in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho. Three years ago the Vulture Study Group (VSG) and the Raptor Conservation Group, also of the EWT, amalgamated to form the Birds of Prey Working Group (BoPWG).
This ‘new’ group now concentrates its considerable human and financial resources on raptor and vulture-related conservation issues. It plays a leading role in co-ordinating activities in Southern Africa. The Namibian representatives of BoPWG have changed their name to Vultures Namibia. As the bulk of funding for projects now comes from Namibian companies, it was felt the change was appropriate. Close ties with BoPWG have not been cut, as they have the expertise and many world-renowned vulture conservationists on hand to advise them.
Birders with a cause
There are many other people concerned about the fate of birds of prey. North of the Waterberg Mountains in Namibia, the Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST) has been doing sterling work in an effort to keep Cape Vultures flying through our skies. Maria Diekmann, director and founder of REST, and her farmer husband, Jörg, work tirelessly to promote and conserve the critically endangered Cape Vulture. It was through co-operation with the VSG and later BoPWG that Cape Vultures from South Africa were brought to this country to boost the dwindling local population. Leading vulture biologists from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Swaziland were involved in this project and visited Namibia several times as advisers.
The Namibia Animal Rehabilitation, Research and Education Centre (NARREC), is another NGO with international links. NARREC looks after poisoned or injured raptors and other animals. Founder Liz Komen, in conjunction with REST, Vultures Namibia, the Poison Working Group of the EWT, government departments and the police, has been instrumental in arranging workshops throughout the country on the correct and safe way to use poison. Speakers and experts in their field, Gerhard Verdoorn and Tim Snow from the EWT, assisted with these courses. Vultures Namibia is involved in promoting vulture conservation and long-term ringing projects in the Namib-Naukluft Park and on commercial farms.
Bird ringing, or banding as it is known in some countries, is an important tool in the conservation of birds. The birds are caught and a uniquely numbered metal ring is fitted on one leg. This marked bird is then identifiable wherever it goes. This gives researchers information on dispersal from the nesting and roosting sites, aids in determining longevity, migration patterns and routes, and much more. To improve the re-sighting of marked birds, larger species are fitted with a coloured, numbered plastic tag to one or both wings. This number can then identify the bird at a distance, without it having to be caught again. Vultures in Southern Africa have been marked in this way for the past two breeding seasons. The number of re-sightings of these patagial tags, as they are known, is exceeding all expectations.
All ringing and tagging records in Southern Africa are centralised and controlled by the South African Ringing Unit (SAFRING), at the University of Cape Town. Every year, thousands of ringing and re-sighting records are processed here. Namibia, through the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, contributes annually to the costs of this operation. Regardless of where the bird was ringed or re-sighted, SAFRING will inform the ringer and the party reporting a sighting, or whoever has found a dead ringed bird, of all the pertinent facts. These include the date and place ringed and the time and distance elapsed between ringing and re-sighting. It is imperative that marked birds and other animals are tracked, regardless of what international boundaries they cross. Think of all the birds migrating to the northern hemisphere in our winter. SAFRING corresponds with ringing organisations in many countries throughout the world.
Cross-border co-operation is not limited to the flow of information. Financial support from the stronger NGOs assists new and smaller ones to cope with the ever-increasing costs of conservation actions. André Botha flew to Namibia two years ago to teach Namibian bird ringers how to fit patagial tags to vultures. The considerable travel costs, including patagial tags and pliers, were borne by BoPWG.
Other organisations with whom Namibian birders and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism work are BirdLife South Africa and BirdLife Botswana. These are affiliated to BirdLife International. No country, conservation organisation or NGO striving to be successful, can work in isolation. Birds have no boundaries and similarly, in the effort to conserve and protect birds of prey, the flow of scientific and other information knows no boundaries.
This article appeared in the 2008/9 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.