Think like a vulture today
[The Namibian -- 31 August 2012]

The 1st of September is Vulture Awareness Day. International awareness days are a strategy to involve as many people as possible in thoughts or in actual activities on a specific issue. Our vultures, seven species have been recorded in Namibia, need strategic conservation action if we want to secure their populations for the future. As from 2012 all seven of Namibia's vulture species are ranked by the IUCN as endangered.

Good news was recently reported from southern Namibia where 12 Lappet faced Vultures were seen on a carcass in an area renowned in the recent past as a hotspot for poisoning events. But sadly at the same time more than 300 vultures died on a poison-laced carcass in the Caprivi. After the discovery of this shocking event the designed protocol was not followed and so the number of dead birds per species, any tagged or ringed birds and the type of poison remain as unknowns.

Through an intense bird of prey awareness and anti-poison advocacy campaign that began over a decade ago, Namibia realized some essential policy and regulatory milestones. However policy and regulation needs to be followed by implementation and enforcement and with large birds of prey national decisions are not enough as birds readily cross borders. A regional approach is needed and not only at policy level because decision makers that affect biodiversity emerge from the household management position through to government rank.

There are a number of entry points that we can use in order to assist large birds of prey, specifically scavenging species, in order to secure their future. Safe food and safe breeding sites are the two most obvious needs for populations and this can only be achieved by advocacy and cooperation from land managers and citizen scientists.

Citizen scientists are potentially every member of public and their assistance may be in the form of data input or in providing assistance with law enforcement by reporting on activities that could endanger species. Obvious issues that might be reported on are illegal chopping of indigenous trees, aircrafts flying below restricted heights or deliberate harassment at nest sites. Less obvious activities may include reporting on the retailing of pesticides that are repackaged into unlabeled containers or pesticides with no labels that are sold on the streets by vendors.

In order to gain data on vulture movements a number of vulture identification projects have been underway for some years. The annual “vulture ringing” by Peter Bridgeford in the Namib-Naukluft Park has been ongoing for over 20 years, to date over 800 Lappet-faced Vultures have been individually marked with leg rings or wing tags. In the Khomas region as well as in Etosha an annual White-backed Vulture marking project has been ongoing for some years. This project is managed by members of the public who hold special permits to work with vultures as well as by Ministry of Environment and Tourism officials.

One accepted activity to support vultures is a “vulture restaurant” where uncontaminated food is placed for the birds at a specific site. There are a number of pros and cons associated with feeding vultures and there can be fatalities if care is not taken with the history of any veterinary treatment of a carcasses used at the site. In 2010 a pamphlet providing basic information on “vulture restaurants” and specifically the dangers of certain chemical pharmaceuticals was printed and widely distributed in Namibia.

Namibia has a very good conservation track record and large areas of open rangeland. However we cannot afford to be complacent in view of the current declines in various populations locally, regionally and globally.

Liz Komen