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Do you shudder at the thought of vultures? Well, the dawn of spring on Saturday 1 September is the perfect time to change your attitude and discover the awesome abilities of these fascinating birds of prey.

 Cape Vulture
Cape Vulture
© André Botha

That’s what International Vulture Awareness Day is all about: focusing our attention on the birds and their status in the wild. Held on the first Saturday of September every year, the initiative is the brainchild of the Endangered Wildlife Trust Birds of Prey Programme (EWT-BoPP), its partners and its associates, including provincial conservation bodies and several other NGOs involved in vulture research and conservation in South Africa. The purpose of the event? To create awareness of the plight of all vulture species and to highlight the work carried out by conservationists to monitor populations and implement measures to preserve the birds and their habitats.

‘The day evolved from the Sasol National Vulture Awareness Day that has been celebrated in South Africa since 2005,’ says André Botha, manager of the EWT-BoPP. ‘The initiative received such interest worldwide that the first international event was celebrated in 2011 by 159 organisations representing 44 countries. We expect global support to be even greater this year.’

Southern Africa’s vulture populations are under constant threat. South Africa itself is home to nine species, seven of which are listed in the Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland (Barnes, 2000) as facing a certain degree of threat of extinction. Among these is the bearded vulture Gypaetus barbatus, whose range in the subcontinent is restricted to the Maluti-Drakensberg mountains. The species is classified as Endangered and its numbers continue to decline. The Cape vulture Gyps coprotheres only occurs in southern Africa and its conservation is one of the main focus areas of the EWT-BoPP. Both the hooded Necrosyrtes monachus and African white-backed vulture Gyps africanus were up-listed to Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species during the past 12 months.

Lappet-faced vulture
Lappet-faced vulture
©André Botha.

Hazards facing the birds include poisoning, persecution, electrocution and collision with power-lines, drowning in farm reservoirs in drier parts of the country, and a shortage of both safe food supplies and suitable habitat. The potential impact of indiscriminately placed wind-energy installations is also recognised as a major emerging threat to large soaring birds such as vultures.

Come to the fun-filled family day at the VulPro facilities near Hartbeespoort Dam on Saturday to find out more about our vultures. Hosted by EWT in collaboration with VulPro and BirdLife South Africa, there’ll be talks on vulture conservation and feeding, and lots of activities for children. Contact André Botha at andreb@ewt.org.za, Kerri Wolter at kerri.wolter@gmail.com, or Ernst Retief at conservation.gauteng@birdlife.org.za to find out more about the day’s events. A number of rehabilitation centres and vulture restaurants in the country will also host special visitor days, introducing vultures to members of the public. To get involved, e-mail www.international-vulture-awareness-day.org

Look out for scientific editor Tim Jackson’s feature in the October issue of Africa Geographic about vulture flight and how the birds take off and stay aloft. It’s filled with information that will inspire your admiration for these incredible creatures.

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