A helicopter survey of the cliffs of the Waterberg Plateau Park two years ago confirmed what conservationists had feared. The Cape vultures – whose numbers have been declining for many years – no longer have any active nests on the cliffs. They have stopped breeding altogether.
This means that the Cape vulture is critically endangered in Namibia, says Dr Rob Simmons, Senior Conservation Scientist on the National Biodiversity Programme of the Directorate of Environmental Affairs. “If this trend continues they will become extinct within the next 20 years and the last adult birds are gone.”
Encouraging news from the survey was that at least 11 vultures still use the cliffs for roosting. In a previous survey carried out at Waterberg in 1985, 25 vultures with five active nests were found. It was estimated that there were 500 pairs of vultures in 1940. Experts now think that some of the last vultures may have moved off to the next best and nearest colony in Botswana, where there are healthy numbers of birds breeding.
“They are very social animals that forage and roost together,” says Simmons. “In such a tiny population it is as if the colony has been reduced below a critical mass to assure breeding. Some probably did what any sensible bird would do – find another colony.”
He is of the opinion that if a core group of vultures were to be reintroduced to Waterberg it may bring back vultures from other parts in Southern Africa. This is possible, especially if the main colonies in South Africa, that currently number about 4 000 pairs, do well. With healthy increasing populations, the vultures will be encouraged to disperse to other colonies such as those in Namibia.
However, before reintroduction can take place the reasons for the vultures’ decline in numbers, namely the use of poison by farmers to kill problem animals and the disastrous bush encroachment that occurs on most of Namibia’s commercial farmland, will have to be addressed. Bush encroachment has a double impact on Cape vulture survival. According to Dr Simmons it first reduces the quality of their feeding area, as the vultures, due to their size and weight, need space to reach the carcass and take off again. The vultures that normally forage in an area of 50 to 70 km around the Waterberg then have to go further afield to find food. Thus they are covering more farms and are more likely to become poisoned.
Over the past few years there have been several efforts to address these problems. On a farm that overlooks Waterberg’s cliffs in the Otjiwarongo district, Maria Diekmann, a member of a family that has farmed in the Otjiwarongo district for four generations, established the Rare and Endangered Wildlife Trust to save the vultures. Assisted by the Endangered Wildlife Trust of Southern African, Cape vultures from South Africa will be reintroduced to the Waterberg. Ms Diekmann is also educating farmers in the area on the use of poison and alternatives to poison. Her efforts are being supplemented on a national level by the Namibian Animal Rehabilitation Centre (NARREC). The well-known Cheetah Conservation Fund of Namibia (CCF), because they are concerned about the effect of bush encroachment on Namibia’s cheetah, has recently started a project removing invasive bush species to improve the survival chances of cheetah as well as vultures on farmland.
According to Dr Simmons “100%” of the farmers in the foraging area should refrain from using poison for the successful reintroduction of the vultures in the area. “Although only 1% of the farmers might be using poison, vultures will eventually make their way to that farm and be destroyed.”
“If all these aspects were to be addressed, there is no reason why the vultures cannot be successfully reintroduced,” says Dr Simmons, who assists from Government’s side by providing scientific information, participating in workshops and facilitating permits. “There is still hope for the Cape vulture in Namibia.”
Private initiative to save the Cape vulture
It was a major stroke of luck for the endangered Cape vultures of Waterberg the day Maria Diekmann became interested in their survival.
From her and her husband Jorg’s farm overlooking the cliffs of the Waterberg Plateau Park where the vultures used to breed, she became the main driving force behind efforts to save these birds. Since she is accepted as part of the farming community, her efforts to address one of the main reasons for their decline in numbers – the use of poison to kill predators – have been received favourably.
Two years ago Maria Diekmann established the Rare and Endangered Wildlife Trust, which started a vulture restaurant in 2001 to provide uncontaminated meat to the last remaining vultures. The objective is to reintroduce approximately 60 vultures from South Africa to the Waterberg area. The first two vultures from South Africa – non-releasable rehabilitated birds that will be used for breeding – arrived last year.
However, says Maria, before this can be done, the poison issue will have to be resolved. Education under both commercial and communal farmers in the area is one of the main ingredients of the endeavour. The way she provides the education will possibly help ensure success.
“We are doing it from the farmer’s point of view, as we are farmers first and then conservationists,” she explains. “People keep saying ‘no-one has spoken to us as farmers before’.” She has been overwhelmed by the interest shown by farmers. Not a week goes by that she is not invited to address farmers’ associations with up to 60 people attending. Alternatives to poison, such as livestock management techniques and the proper use of poison to target the problem predator, are taught. “There are lots of alternatives to poison that farmers don’t know about,” she says.
In August four more vultures from South Africa (two that were bred in captivity and two rehabilitated badly injured ones) will arrive to be used for educational purposes.
With the help of the youth development organisation Raleigh International, an aviary for the first two birds containing artificial “breeding” cliffs was recently built. Two lookout points for professional photographers (the National Geographic is seemingly interested in covering the process of reintroducing the vultures) and the general public has also been constructed.
In July the construction of a capture and holding aviary near the vulture restaurant that can hold some thirty vultures will commence. In this aviary the last vultures of Waterberg will be captured so as to fit eight of them with satellite-tracking collars. This will be part of a vital monitoring programme to gain a better understanding of the vultures.
The Trust has received enough funding to date to pay for 2.5 satellite collars. The collars cost approximately N$30 000 each. Businesses that sponsor a collar will have a bird named after them.
The aviary near the restaurant will also be used for the release of new vultures. It is hoped that the new vultures will learn skills and be accepted by the visitor vultures, so that they will ultimately be released under their wing.
The Trust receives expert help from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, as well as from the Vulture Study Group, a working group of the Endangered Wildlife Trust of Southern Africa, which is intensely involved in the project. Captive vultures from South Africa will be used to reintroduce the species into Namibia.
The Vulture Study Group is involved in arranging for birds to translocated from South Africa and has also supplied valuable information on the use of poisons to the Namibian Trust.
*The public can visit the vulture restaurant on Tuesday and Saturday mornings free of charge. The turn-off to Farm African Wilderness Trails is on the tar road between Otjiwarongo and Otavi, approximately 27 km from Otjiwarongo.
Poison kills indiscriminately
Experts estimate that for every animal that is targeted with poison, over one hundred non-targeted animals are killed.
“The high-profile, flagship spe-cies in the poison issue are the vultures,” says Dr Rob Simmons of the National Biodiversity Programme.“There are, however, many other species that are being killed, such as bats, frogs, other birds of prey and some seed-eating birds, but these are not so easily seen.”
Bateleurs are probably more sensitive than vultures because they find carcasses first. They are being confined to national parks in Southern Africa because of the intensity of poison on the outside. According to Dr Simmons, all scavenger populations declined in the 1900s due to poisoning. “Most of these species are at the top of our red-data lists.”
Other vulture species are also affected by poison. An endemic subspecies of the Egyptian vulture – a bird that used to occur all over Southern Africa – is thought to have become extinct in Namibia. Experts are hoping that they might find one or two pairs in isolated parts of north-western Namibia and Angola.
This article appeared in the 2002 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.