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Africa Geographic Travel

A soft chirp is all that can be heard. Even this faint sound is difficult to discern, but undoubtedly the parents hear it. The female Cape vulture stands over the nest gently prodding the egg while the male eagerly gathers nesting material and chases away any other vulture which comes too close.

Cape-vulture-mother

This is one of the most exciting moments in the breeding program. The first chick of the season is hatching deep inside the cup of a nest which took weeks to build.

Two days ago the chick started to internally pip, or break the internal membrane. Each chick has an egg tooth, a rigid edge on the tip of its beak, which facilitates pipping. Yesterday we could hear the chick calling to its parents, confirming it had broken through the egg shell. Today it should fully hatch, 54 days after it was laid. The chick calls to the parents rallying for their assistance to peel away the broken shell. If the chick is unable to break out of the shell entirely, the membrane may suffocate it.

Cape-vulture-piping-chick

This is one of many chicks that will hatch here at VulPro, a vulture conservation organisation in South Africa’s North West Province. Our Cape vulture breeding colony laid 12 eggs total this year. Only two remain on the breeding cliff with the parents. Others are guarded in our incubator and turned by hand three times per day. When the artificially incubated eggs begin to internally pip we place them back on the nest replacing wooden dummy eggs. It is important that the parents bond with the chick in the hatching process. Each chick will be reared away from human contact.

VulPro's-incubator-with-Cape-vulture-eggs

VulPro started its Cape vulture captive-breeding program in 2011 in response to drastic population declines. There are less than 3 000 breeding pairs left in the wild, all confined to Southern Africa. All chicks raised this year along with four older chicks from previous broods will be released to fly over South Africa’s Magaliesberg mountains in February 2015. These chicks mark the initiation of a South African supplementation program which aims to increase the dwindling Cape vulture population.

hatching-Cape-vulture-chick

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I spend much of my time at VulPro watching the copulation behaviours of Cape vultures, hauling carcasses in varying states of decay, or smashing bones with a sledge hammer. You would not be the first to call me crazy for considering these enjoyable pastimes. I am conducting my Master’s research in South Africa alongside VulPro’s Cape vulture captive-breeding program. My study is the first to investigate captive-bred release success of the highly threatened species. I spent my early 20’s travelling East Africa while managing chimpanzee and blue monkey research projects. In my spare time I explored the region in self-guided mountaineering and hiking expeditions. I was born in America but have always found (or created) reasons to keep returning to Africa – what now feels like my home continent.

Africa Geographic Travel