Written by: Maggie Hirschauer
Vulture conservation history was made on 15 February 2015 with the release of ten captive-bred Cape vultures at VulPro. These chicks took their first flight into the wild to join the Magaliesberg’s Cape vultures, marking the initiation of a population recovery plan which has taken years of preparation.
Seven captive-bred Cape vultures from VulPro and three from the National Zoological Gardens were released into VulPro’s open-top enclosure, located adjacent to the rehabilitation enclosure in which they were previously housed. Moving birds to the open-top enclosure allowed them to ‘release’ themselves when they feel ready to leave. For the first hour, the birds had their freedom but remained in the open-top enclosure. Over the course of the day they explored their surroundings: fought over perches, made small flights to the tops of the enclosures, and visited the wild vulture feeding site. As they acclimatize to their environment they will start exploring further afield until they no longer rely on VulPro for security and food.
Each vulture was fitted with a tracking device on to its back to monitor their movements with locality readings, altitude, speed, temperature and direction every 15 minutes. In addition, each bird was fitted with wing tags on both wings for visual re-sightings. These tags were specially designed in Spain and are superior to the current tags used in South Africa. They can be read from both the top and underneath surfaces of the birds’ wings and do not fade as the writing has been cut out instead of laser printed. VulPro is appealing to all members of the public to please report tagged re-sightings as this data is extremely important to the success of this release project.
VulPro, a vulture conservation programme in the North-West Province’s Magaliesberg Mountains, is located within 100 km of two active and one extinct Cape vulture breeding colonies. In 2011, VulPro initiated a captive breeding programme for Cape vulture population supplementation, the first of its kind for vultures on the African continent. Eggs are artificially incubated and returned to the parents for rearing outside of human contact. Between 2011 and 2014, VulPro’s breeding population has produced nine healthy chicks for release, seven of which were released on 15 February. Chicks born in this programme will establish the founding population of the Magaliesberg Cape vulture supplementation programme and Cape vulture reintroduction programmes within southern Africa.
Cape vultures are endemic to southern Africa and classified as regionally endangered and globally vulnerable with under 4 000 breeding pairs remaining. The Magaliesberg is home to three breeding colonies of Cape vultures however the historically largest colony, The Roberts’ Farm Cape vulture colony, went extinct in 2012 due to power line collisions, electrocutions and irresponsible use of poisons by farmers and landowners. These threats are being addressed on a daily basis with the help of concerned landowners and VulPro now hopes to attract vultures back to this site.
The National Zoological Gardens of South Africa’s Manager of Animal Collections and Conservation, Tracy Rehse, says, “Zoos are increasingly becoming more involved the in conservation of species either through fieldwork or reintroduction programmes. As more and more species are threatened with extinction the importance of reintroduction programmes cannot be underestimated, and as such we applaud VulPro for this initiative”.
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