North Carolina Zoo is helping to save African vultures in the wild. Zoo staff have tagged white-backed, hooded, and white-headed vultures in southern Tanzania to assess their movement patterns and determine threats. On-going population monitoring and conservation efforts will ensure the conservation of these critically endangered scavenger species.

 

Nature’s Clean-up Crew

Vultures are currently the fastest declining group of birds globally. Recent work has led to several African vulture species being up-listed to Critically Endangered by the IUCN, meaning they risk imminent extinction if current conditions persist. The primary threat to vultures is poisoning. People put poison on carcasses or dead animals trying to kill animals that pose a threat to their livestock, such as lions and hyenas. Over 100 vultures can be killed at just one carcass, so the impact of this activity has been enormous. The potential loss of these crucial scavengers could have significant consequences for many species who share their savannah ecosystems, as well as humans, because they play a critical role in disease control. For example, in India, the near extinction of vultures is estimated to have cost nearly $34 billion in human health and other impacts. Finding solutions to vulture declines in Africa is therefore critical.  

 

Monitoring Vulture Populations

Vulture experts identified southern Tanzania as an area likely to be important for vultures, but where little was currently known about the status, population trends, or threats to vultures. No systematic studies of vultures have been done in Tanzania since the 70’s and no research on vultures has ever been done in southern Tanzania. In 2013, the North Carolina Zoo in collaboration with the WCS conducted vulture surveys in Ruaha and Katavi National Park, and confirmed the importance of this landscape for African vultures, with high vulture abundance and currently low threats (i.e. limited poisoning suspected). In 2014, WCS and North Carolina Zoo established a collaborative and sustainable vulture monitoring program in Ruaha and Katavi. This program involved developing a training program for Tanzanian National Parks staff to teach rangers how to identify vultures to facilitate their data collection on vulture numbers at carcasses and on vulture nests, as well as establishing a protocol in the event of a poisoning event. 

 

Tracking Vultures from Space

In recent years, the NC Zoo has also begun attaching tracking devices onto white-backed, hooded, and white-headed vultures to see how they use their environment, and to monitor for the presence of poisoning events and disease outbreaks. Vultures can have huge ranges and it is important to understand where they go and what threats may be affecting them in Tanzania if we are going to protect them. We also need more information on their ranges to better understand trends we are seeing in the population monitoring we have been doing. Using satellite telemetry, we can now carefully follow the movements of our satellite tagged vultures from our office in North Carolina. 

 

Combatting Dangers on the Ground

Sadly, the death of four tagged vultures and a major poisoning event that killed over 50 birds in May 2016 highlight that poisoning is occurring in southern Tanzania. In response to the poisoning risk, we have expanded our ranger training to include more in-depth information on proper sample collection in the event of a poisoning. Rangers can play a crucial role in caring for sick vultures found at poisoning sites as well as in ensuring evidence is collected to find the perpetrator. Rangers also play a critical role in the safe disposal of poisoned carcasses to avoid the death of more vultures and other scavengers. Ranger trainings conducted in 2017 helped to ensure a rapid response to major poisoning events such as one that occurred just outside Ruaha National Park in February 2018. This event killed over 70 vultures and 6 lions, but teams on the ground were well prepared. They collected critical evidence that led to the arrest of a distributor who was selling pesticides to ranchers specifically to kill lions. In addition, four sick Critically Endangered vultures were rehabilitated. Two of these vultures have survived and are currently tagged with satellite telemetry so we can track their on-going movements and survival. Through our efforts we are helping to protect one of the most important strongholds for these Critically Endangered scavengers.  

 

Expanding our Efforts

In 2018, the North Carolina Zoo joined new partners from Frankfurt Zoological Society and Tanzanian Wildlife Authority to begin addressing vulture conservation issues in Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania, which is one of the largest protected areas in Africa but has received limited attention in recent years and no systematic studies of vultures to date. Initial surveys suggest that Selous has a substantial vulture population particularly of Critically Endangered white-backed and white-headed vultures. In June 2018, Corinne Kendall, Curator of Conservation and Research at the zoo, tagged 7 white-backed vultures, leading a team from Frankfurt Zoological Society and Tanzanian Wildlife Authority. Satellite telemetry will assist in understanding how vultures use the reserve and their potential risk of poisoning, which occurs when poachers or pastoralists lace carcasses with pesticides. In addition, Corinne is working with Tanzanian master’s student, Allan Baino, from the University of Glasgow, who will be conducting a study on vulture diet using samples to be collected across the country.

 

Partners: Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), Ruaha Carnivore Project, Tanzanian National Parks (TANAPA), Tanzania Wildlife Authority (TAWA), Tanzanian Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI), University of Glasgow, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)