Keep Calm and Carri-on: Vulture Research in Africa

Keep Calm and Carri-on: Vulture Research in Africa

#Taronga Zoo Sydney

Posted on 09th December 2016 by Media Relations

Throughout 2016, Taronga has proudly supported conservation work in Africa, both in Southern Tanzania and South Africa. It is essential to monitor and understand the needs and behaviour of these birds, as many species of vulture globally are endangered, or critically endangered.

Being that vultures feed on the recently deceased, in their absence, there are significant ramifications. For instance, the estimated costs due to the decline of vultures in India, is $34 billion dollars (health care and loss of eco-tourism).

Taronga hopes its support of these projects will prevent vultures from becoming extinct.

The funding Taronga provides has aided researchers in Tanzania with the purchase of GPS satellite units. These units are attached to the vultures like a mini-backpack, and fall off over the course of the year.

From 28 September to 5 October, nine satellite units were attached to eight White-backed Vultures, and one White-headed Vulture. To date, most of the data that has been collected has been with White-backed Vultures, so to be able to collect data on this additional species is very exciting.

Amazingly, the current results show that these White-backed Vultures travel up to 1000km a week! One individual that has been tracked since February 2016 has amassed a whopping 29,500km.

As well as equipping these tracking units, blood samples have been taken too. These samples provide information about lead exposure, of which high levels can result in an individuals’ death.

Lead shrapnel from poaching activities is believed to be the main source, so this information is vital for understanding if increased risks are present or not. The recent data suggests the population in Southern Tanzania is separate to that of Northern Tanzania, and continues to be a stronghold for the vultures living there.

This fieldwork is undertaken annually, so researchers can be alerted to any significant impacts to the area. Additionally, Bird Show Keeper Brendan Host undertook a ZooFriends Fellowship over September-October of this year. Similar field work was conducted with the conservation group Wildlife ACT in areas of South Africa.

Aside from attaching GPS units, juvenile vultures were tagged, as a means of collecting important behavioural data throughout the year. These individuals can then be monitored, and dispersals patterns determined.

To access these chicks, a large cherry-picker was provided. This is because the vulture chicks are in nests at the very top of the trees they are found in.

Vulture specialists then temporarily removed the vultures from the nests, to attach the tags, and take samples, before returning them. The process is very efficient, so the birds can be returned to the nests as quickly as possible.

Raising awareness about the plight of vultures is incredibly important. Taronga firmly believes in a future for vultures.

- Keeper Brendan Host