Spreading Conservation Wings With International Vulture Day

by Gabrielle Ozynski

With International Vulture Awareness Day taking place on Saturday, September 7, the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Birds of Prey Programme is preparing to extend its conservation wings. This will take the form of a long-term vulture conservation initiative that will ultimately see the establishment of three new important Vulture Safe Zones  (VSZ) in strategic sites across South Africa.

Since its inception in 1973, the EWT has played a leading role in vulture conservation throughout southern Africa. Now the organisation has developed what they call a ‘suite of conservation interventions’ which aim to ‘address the the key threats and stabilise and recover vulture populations’.

“We are excited to be spearheading the establishment of the first VSZ in South Africa. The use of VSZ has been identified as a priority conservation intervention in the Multi-species Action Plan (MsAP) to Conserve African-Eurasian Vultures (2017). VSZ are one of the most effective ways to tackle the threats to vultures in South Africa’s dynamic landscapes. They allow us to protect areas that are important to vultures by focusing on an area, identifying what the threats are, and implementing specific conservation interventions to address these threats.”

Engaging with landowners has been a very important part of the process, where the EWT aim to ‘mitigate and where possible, remove all major human-related threats to vultures in the establishment of VSZ’. That is to ‘commit to managing their properties in ways that will create safe spaces for vultures and other wildlife to thrive’.

This will see vulture populations stabilising and allow them to return to their traditional home ranges and breeding sites. VSZ  can also function as release sites for captive-bred birds and provide benefits for many other species.

EWT has  partnered with SANParks, private reserves including BlyOlifants and Timbavati Private Nature reserves, and other key stakeholders including the Kruger 2 Canyons Biosphere (K2C), Raptors Botswana, BirdLife International and BirdLife South Africa, to create VSZ in important vulture breeding and foraging habitat across the SADC region.

“The first VSZ is in the vulture-rich region of Mpumalanga, with a focus on protecting important breeding clusters of Critically Endangered White-backed and Hooded vultures along the Lowveld riparian systems of the Blyde and Olifants rivers – a highly threatened vegetation type, which will also benefit from our conservation work. The second VSZ falls within the central Karoo district around one of the southernmost breeding colonies of White-backed Vultures in Mokala National Park. In the third site, we will establish a Vulture Safe Zone in the south-central Karoo to recover Cape Vulture populations that historically frequented – and even bred – in the region. Our focus here comprises a critical conservation zone that spans across approximately 23,000 km2 in and around three major protected areas: the Karoo, Camdeboo and Mountain Zebra National Parks.

“In all of the sites, we will work with farmers, game breeders, private reserves and SANParks to develop landscapes that provide protection to breeding populations and encourage them back to areas where they have previously been driven away. Our work will help to develop sustainable land practices that benefit both the people and wildlife. Importantly, this approach encourages positive action for vultures, focusing less on prohibition and negative messaging, and more on sound environmental practices that could provide landowners with reputational and economic benefits. Initially implemented by countries in Asia, and recently in Zambia, VSZ offer conservation solutions that are effective, realistic and achievable at ground level. The launch of this initiative encapsulates the ethos of International Vulture Awareness Day, by bringing stakeholders together and focusing on positive actions, making it the perfect way to celebrate.

What is a VSZ?
A VSZ is an appropriately sized geographic area in which targeted conservation measures are undertaken to address the key threats relevant to the vulture species present. VSZ are developed in southern Africa as an approach to complement national and international efforts to reduce the impact of existing and emerging threats to stabilise and promote recovery of existing vulture populations.

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