Bearded Vulture Flying

The Maloti-Drakensberg Vulture Project

The Bearded Vulture Recovery Programme

Co-ordinator of the Bearded Vulture Recovery Programme and Facilitator of the implementation of the Biodiversity Management Plan for the species: 

Dr. Sonja Krüger, sonja.krueger@kznwildlife.com

Background

The Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus is a Critically Endangered species in Southern Africa whose entire range in the Southern Hemisphere falls within the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa and Lesotho. A project was initiated in 2000 to determine the breeding status of the species and has more recently undertaken research and monitoring to quantify the decline in the species, investigate the mechanisms of this decline and determine the most appropriate management actions necessary to attain the short-term species’ conservation target of a positive population growth rate.

The population is estimated at between 368-408 individuals (109-221 breeding pairs) and occupies a breeding range of 28 125 km2. Research has shown that human impacts are driving the decline, with the primary causes of mortality being poisoning and collisions with power lines. The overall foraging range of the population is estimated to be 51 767 km2 and non-adults were found to use 65% of this area whereas adults focused their activities in an area of about 286 km2 around their nests.

A recovery programme is required to maintain a genetically viable in-situ population of Bearded Vulture in southern Africa. In order to reduce mortality rates, increase productivity and supplement the population, two key goals need to be attained: 

1. The actions identified in the Bilateral Bearded Vulture Recovery Strategy and Action Plan need to be implemented to address the threats to the in-situ population. 

2. A conservation breeding programme must be established to:

     i) ensure a diverse and sustainable ex-situ rescue or insurance population to prevent extinction, and

     ii) to produce viable chicks for reintroduction into suitable areas of their former range.

The Bearded Vulture Task Force is the steering committee of the Bearded Vulture Recovery Programme and it is this Task Force that is responsible for ensuring that the abovementioned goals are attained. The Bearded Vulture Task Force was established in 2006 to implement a Conservation Action Plan for the species.  This plan was revised in 2011 and a Bearded Vulture Biodiversity Management Plan (Bearded Vulture Biodiversity Management Plan 2013) was gazetted by the South African Minister of Environmental Affairs on 8 May 2014 (Government Gazette Notice No. 37620) for implementation between 2014-2018. This plan was revised in 2018 to form a bilateral Bearded Vulture Recovery Strategy & Action Plan.

The Southern African Bearded Vulture Recovery Strategy & Action Plan provides a comprehensive long-term strategy with a detailed 5-year action plan towards the species conservation goals and targets; the recovery of this population to acceptable levels by 2030. The Recovery Strategy guides the Bearded Vulture Recovery Programme and promotes and facilitates collaborative and coordinated international actions across the range of the species.

The aims of the Bearded Vulture Recovery Programme are:

  • To ensure the long term survival of the species through halting the population decline and stabilizing the population at the current population size (approximately 100 breeding pairs) over the next ten years.
  • To grow the population to a realistic carrying capacity (150 breeding pairs) in the future and maintaining a positive population growth rate (λ>1).

In 2015, The Bearded Vulture Task Force took the decision to implement a Conservation Breeding Programme, based on the size of the in-situ population and the trend in number as well as the IUCN recommendations to consider such a strategy when populations number less than 1000 wild individuals. This programme was initiated by Shannon Hoffman at the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary near Pietermaritzburg. This centre was chosen because of the existing permits and facilities, the available skills of the manager and the fact that it houses the only captive Bearded Vulture in southern Africa.

Bearded Vulture Breeding Programme

Manager of the Bearded Vulture Breeding Programme

Ms. Shannon Hoffman, art@africanraptor.co.za, http://africanraptor.co.za/

The breeding programme is a long term project, spanning a minimum of twenty years. The initial step is to establish a founder population of 20-30 unrelated individuals. Since there is only one individual of the sub-Saharan African sub-species in captivity in southern Africa, individuals need to be harvested from the wild.

Bearded Vultures breed during winter and although they lay two eggs, only a single chick is raised each season. Therefore the biologically redundant second eggs can be harvested and the chicks hatched and raised in captivity without threatening the wild population. This method will be used to establish a founder population that will be reared in captivity. These individuals will then be matured and paired with breeding in mind, with the progeny available for release after about a 10 year period.

The captive birds in the breeding programme include; an adult (confiscated in 2011 from a private facility where it was held in an inappropriate facility after being collected illegally from the wild), a male and female that fledged successfully from eggs collected in 2015, two females that fledged successfully from eggs collected in 2017 and 2018, and two males and two females fledged successfully from eggs collected in 2019.

In order to establish a founder population of 20-30 unrelated individuals to form breeding pairs, a minimum of 30 eggs need to be harvested from the wild to take into account uneven sex ratios and illness or impaired eggs/individuals. We propose to harvest six eggs annually for the next five years from territories where pairs are known to breed regularly and which are accessible by mountaineers and the harvesting team to ensure the least amount of disturbance to the nest and egg.

Conclusion

The Bearded Vulture Task Force has been in place since 2006, during which time much has been done towards conserving this Critically Endangered trans-frontier icon. Unfortunately, the critical status of the species has necessitated the implementation of a Recovery Programme for the species, but with the continued collaboration of the dedicated task force members and their respective institutions, as well as numerous stakeholders engaged by the task force over the past 10 years, the programme’s vision of “maintaining a genetically viable in-situ population of Bearded Vulture in southern Africa” can be achieved.

Juvenile Bearded Vulture
Juvenile Bearded Vulture in flight

Cape Vulture Project

The Cape Vulture project of KwaZulu-Natal focusses on monitoring all major roosts and the four large breeding colonies in the province on an annual basis.

A number of Cape Vultures have been fitted with satellite tags to obtain more information on their movement patterns, home range sizes, and causes of mortality. Data from these satellite tags have also been used to develop risk maps to aid in the planning and siting of proposed developments throughout Southern Africa.

In addition, a number of Cape Vultures have been fitted with yellow wing tags to enable researchers to estimate the survival rate of the species.

Maloti-Drakensberg Vulture Project