Researcher: Maria Diekman
However, it has another more dubious distinction: it is Namibia’s most endangered species with only eleven individuals remaining in the country. The decline in its population is due to the use of poisons, habitat destruction and dietary deficiencies. Up until now few studies have been done on the role vultures play as part of the ecosystem, so the project, run by Maria Diekmann and the Rare & Endangered Species Trust (REST) researches and documents Cape Griffon Vultures in flight. In addition, it seems that because Cape Griffons fly higher, other lower flying species use them as “scouts”, relying on their superior ability to spot food at greater heights. So the information gathered by the project is vital not just to the survival of this bird, but will benefit other raptor species as well.
Thanks to donations from many sources, including the Wilderness Safaris Wildlife Trust, in 2004, REST personnel began fitting Cape Griffon Vultures with satellite technology. 70g Argos-style transmitters were attached to the backs of four Cape Griffons via harnesses and released successfully back into the wild. This project represents incredible pioneering work in the field of vulture research: it is the first in the world to fit a satellite collar onto a Cape Griffon vulture, first to develop a capture aviary, and first in Africa – possibly the world – to catch and colour-ring almost 800 free-flying vultures (White-backed and Lappet-faced) in one operation. The rings help record the frequency of birds arriving at REST’s feeding station and all over Namibia as spotted by the general public and Wilderness Safaris guides.
REST plans to fit the remaining Namibian Cape Griffon vultures with satellite telemetry, but already the information being gathered has added immeasurably to our knowledge of the species.
Wilderness Safaris Wildlife Trust teamed up with Namibia Nature Foundation in partially sponsoring the satellite collar on a bird consequently given the name “SOFE”, an acronym for “Spirit of Free Enterprise” – he appears to be an adult male and roosts in a tree near his pal Nedbank Namibia’s “Sky Banker”.
Cost for sponsorship of a bird is still US$11,000.00 which seems like an incredible amount of money but please note that;
- the exchange rate is definitely in Namibia’s favour and the business or body can name their very important bird
- we are leading vulture conservation world wide and the only hope for Namibia’s last CGV is this telemetry
- we only have 11 CGVs left in Namibia making it our most endangered species and this bird is only found in southern Africa. If it goes extinct in Namibia it will be only the
- second recorded extinction in memory – the first was the White Rhino which was successfully reintroduced. This is highly impractical for CGV as they are incredibly social and will need the old birds here to show them foraging, roosting and breeding sites.
Cape Griffon Vulture Summary January 2007
REST teamed up with the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust to focus on the reintroduction of the Cape Griffon Vulture back into its Namibian range. This is the first time that such an introduction has been tried in Southern Africa. 16 birds that were admitted to De Wildt for minor rehabilitation and subsequently deemed 100% fit for release were flown to REST in 2004.
These birds were held at REST in a release aviary for over a year in order to acclimatise them. Three of the birds are captive bred but have been kept with the wild releasable birds for behavioural socialisation. The birds were held in the same location as the feeding site to form bonds with the wild birds in the area. This feeding site faces the Waterberg cliffs, the only suitable natural habitat for the vultures in the area.
Finally on 23 October 2005, 14 of the De Wildt vultures were released back into the wild. All the birds were ringed and two were fitted with the satellite tracking device. Unfortunately within the first month two of the birds were recovered dead. One had drowned in a farm reservoir and it is suspected after a full autopsy that the second bird’s healed wing (it had been broken) was not strong enough for full flight. The remaining birds with satellite telemetry are doing well and those with just bands are occasionally being spotted around the country. The De Wildt team is preparing the next batch of birds for delivery to REST in 2007.
REST is very fortunate to have been the first in Africa to fit satellite telemetry to a vulture. While exciting, this was also a bit scary and we thank in particular, Bill Woodley from Israel, for his support in the design of our harness. We found that Microwave Telemetry from the USA has developed a superior satellite telemetry unit and their customer service is fantastic. We began this program in January 2004 and to date have fitted 7 vultures with telemetry.
Currently only 4 birds have units fitted. The data coming in is much better than we ever anticipated. We gather approximately 5-8 direct locations a day. The information is downloaded to Argos in France and sent to REST via the Internet. Once the units were fitted we began discovering information never seen before. We have now found that at least one and probably 3 of our adult male Cape Griffons are interbreeding with female White-backed Vultures. This was never believed possible. See our ‘sexing’ section below, but basically we believe the population became so low and with only two females of eight adult birds, the males found mates in their cousin – the White-backed Vulture.
We also are preparing papers on the first records of Cape Griffon Vulture flying territories, speeds and altitudes. Our latest bird has crossed Namibia’s border 3 times – she has travelled to Angola a number of times – once 400 km inland – and travelled across to Botswana and Zambia.
Via photographic observation of the colony at the Waterberg Plateau Park and at rotational vulture restaurants within the Cape Griffon’s foraging range, we create ‘vulture passports’ to provide positive identification. Passports – when REST began our conservation program it was believed that only 3 Cape Griffons were still alive in Namibia. We immediately began documenting and photographing all sightings. By noting the colour patterns on the inside and outside of the wings we were able to determine that Namibia had at least 8 adult birds and one immature bird. In the last four years we have been able to record that the population has increased by one pure blooded bird a year and so far the last four years chicks have survived. We continue to take pictures of each bird seen and this has been made possible by donations from Hal Stein and Ned and Diana Twining who donated funds for a Nikon digital d100 camera which takes fantastic pictures. We also received a donation of an external hard drive in order to store and protect the thousands of pictures taken.
Conservation activities are at the heart of the REST commitment to the Cape Griffon. It is imperative to provide an uncontaminated food source, as one poisoned carcass could eliminate this colony’s ability to survive. Two main feeding sites are currently used. REST headquarters feeds once a week in order to monitor birds and the Waterberg Plateau Park feeds about once a month.
Jorg Diekmann has designed what is probably the most successful capture aviary in the world. To date, REST has captured almost 800 vultures. This has been key for fitting our satellite telemetry and almost 600 birds have been ringed. Ringing allows us to differentiate between individual birds. Interestingly enough we thought the one disadvantage to feeding weekly is that we would habituate the wild birds to feed at our site. With ringing, we have discovered that the visiting rate is in fact very low and most birds continue with their natural foraging. A paper is in preparation on this subject as it goes against all previous hypotheses. These captures have also allowed REST to collect the largest metamorphic measurement information of free flying vultures in Africa. In addition we now have an incredible collection of DNA samples which will be used by partner researchers for tests ranging from parasite identification to anthrax immunity studies. Typically samples are gathered from chicks just before fledging. REST gathers mainly adult free-flying birds.
The capture programme has allowed and facilitated the collection of the largest bank of metamorphic measured information of free-flying vultures in Africa. In addition REST has compiled a collection of DNA samples from free-flying adult birds that will be used by partner researchers for tests ranging from parasite identification to anthrax immunity studies.
No one believed REST when founder, Maria Diekmann, started reported sightings of unusually marked vultures – half Cape Griffon and half White-backed Vulture. During our second capture of Cape Griffons to fit satellite telemetry, one of these suspected ‘hybrids’ was not only seen but captured. She became Teabag, sponsored by Ned and Diana Twining. DNA was taken and permits have been applied for to send the samples to Juan Jose Negro, an expert in Spain. With her fitted telemetry, Teabag flew back to Sky Banker’s nest leading us to believe that she was his chick. On 25 April 2004 she was kicked off the nest presumably because they began to lay a new egg. She had many long distance and interesting flights before dying close to REST on 1 January 2005. Unfortunately her autopsy was inconclusive, but it appears as if she died of poison. Last year the chick from the same parents was predated by a Tawny Eagle. This year’s bird seems to be fine. He or she hatched on the 6 July 2005 and has been monitored by air on a weekly basis. The chick has not been seen, but the parents remain on the nest so it is suspected that all is well. DNA samples will be taken next month when the chick is older.
Namibian Poison and Vulture Awareness Campaign
The goal of the Poison and Vulture Awareness Campaign is to formulate and apply existing information on the use of poisons and alternative methods for problem animal control, and to format this information into a working national monitoring system. This system incorporates strong cooperation between conservation, land management, business groups and the development of resources and people. The campaign is funded by UNDP GEP Small Grant Scheme.
REST’s current assessment is that poisons are having the largest single fatal impact on raptors and scavengers. To date this is only speculation, as there are no inventories of any of over the counter poisons that can be bought at most feed and farmer stores. Poison use has become both a socially and economically acceptable option in Namibia, and it is believed that most land managers use poison as a quick solution to problem animal management. The discontinuation of poison use will only occur when:
- Poison use is monitored on a national level
- Educational objectives are achieved by informing land-use managers of the negative impact of poison use in both the short and long term.
- Objectives are achieved by providing farmers with safe, effective and inexpensive alternatives to poison, such as noise and scent collars that can be made locally. This has the added benefit of stimulating local job opportunities and providing more locally made products.
CONSERVATION, EDUCATION AND AWARENESS
The education programme is primarily for land managers, farmers, school children but also includes overseas visitors. It focuses on the ecological importance of raptors and scavengers in order to maintain a healthy environment and to build overall awareness of these conservation issues.
REST Board of Directors has met with many stakeholders in the country. REST has attended farmers’ meetings in districts across the country and attended local and national agricultural shows with the live educational vulture, Nelson. Educational talks about vultures and poisons are given approximately once a week at REST headquarters or around Namibia to school children, environmental groups and farmers groups.
Educating on Poison Use
REST continues to focus on educating both freehold and commercial farmers on the indiscriminate use of poisons and how to avoid primary, secondary and tertiary poisonings that are occurring in raptor populations. These poisons are often used as control measures for carnivores, but are used without enough thought to alternative options and proper usage.
Farmers who embrace the discontinuation of poison use on their farms and adopt other alternatives to protect their livestock will be awarded a sign to be posted on the landowner’s gate to demonstrate to the community that they practice ‘vulture-friendly’ land management.
Educating for the Future
In 2004 we launched our SOS (Save Our Species) Campaign school art competition which aims to raise the awareness of the plight of rare and endangered species in young Namibian children. Local school children were provided with information on our four ‘flagship’ species, as well as paints, brushes and cotton school bags produced by a local woman’s group. The children were then asked to paint their favourite species on the bag.
2006 – SOS Campaign Phase Two
The second phase of the campaign will focus on students at primary and combined schools in Grades 3-7. Seven towns have been selected because they fall within the key agricultural and farming areas covered by the overall Poison and Vulture Awareness Campaign.
By educating, informing and involving children in these towns the awareness of the plight of rare and endangered species is raised in the minds of future generations of farmers and land users. Participation in the competition by children at these schools will help the message reach approximately 6000 children. Awareness and education of a wider Namibian and international audience will be reached through the production of the winning designs printed onto 2000 eco-friendly shopping bags and sold throughout tourist and retail outlets in Namibia.
At Okatjemunde, the new REST headquarters, an informative Education Centre has been built alongside the hide which will provide the focus for our educational awareness campaigns. Schools visits will provide valuable learning for the future land users of the country; accompanied by a simple activity sheet pupils and teachers will be encouraged to get the most out of their visit.
The Interactive Visitor Centre is planned for 2008, this will be simple and user-friendly with displays designed to encourage visitors to get a better understanding of the importance of vultures and raptors in the eco-system, and to embrace ‘vulture culture’. A visit to the Interactive Centre will be the starting point for a sense trail for visually, hearing and physically impaired visitors. In addition, walking trails and printed pamphlets will guide all visitors through the facilities and surrounding land.
Wilderness Safaris Wildlife Trust involvement
SOFE (Spirit of Free Enterprise), the bird whose satellite collar the Trust sponsors partially with wildlife presenter Jack Hanna and Namibia Nature Foundation, is doing well. This breeding season he decided to change nesting sites. He still appears to be breeding with his White-backed Vulture female. We believe they moved nests as a Tawny Eagle have predated on their chicks for the past two years. We managed to track him to his new nests and once the chick was old enough our team went in and collected blood samples from the chick in order to check DNA and parentage. Within minutes of putting the chick back in the nest, SOFE landed in the nest to make sure his chick was okay. Based on the nesting behaviour for months afterwards, we believe the chick survived to the fledging stage and hope that we are able to see or recapture the chick in the future.