31 August 2012

Namibia: Think Like a Vulture Today

ALL seven of Namibia's vulture species were ranked by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as 'endangered' this year - something to think about tomorrow on Vulture Awareness Day.

"Our vultures need strategic conservation action if we want to secure their populations for the future," a press release from the Namibia Animal Rehabilitation Research and Education Centre (NARREC) states.

There is good news and bad news when it comes to the struggle to keep Namibia's vultures from disappearing.

According to NARREC, some good news came from southern Namibia where 12 lappet-faced vultures were seen on a carcass in an area renowned in the recent past as a hotspot for poisoning. Unfortunately this good news is overshadowed by the more than 300 vultures poisoned in the Caprivi Region.

Through an intense bird-of-prey awareness and anti-poison campaign that began over a decade ago, Namibia realised some essential policy and regulatory milestones. However, policy and regulations must be enforcement, and with large birds of prey, national decisions are not enough as these birds readily cross borders.

"A regional approach is needed, and not only at policy level," NARREC says.

There seems to be a number of entry points that can be used to assist large scavenger birds. Safe food and breeding sites are the two most obvious needs for populations and this, NARREC says, can only be achieved by advocacy and cooperation from land managers and 'citizen scientists'.

Citizen scientists are potentially every member of public and their assistance may be in the form of data input or assisting with law enforcement by reporting activities that could endanger species.

Obvious issues that might be reported are illegal chopping of indigenous trees, aircraft flying below restricted heights or deliberate harassment at nest sites. Less obvious activities may include the retailing of pesticides that are repackaged into unlabelled containers or pesticides with no labels that are sold on the streets by vendors.

In order to gain data on vulture movements, several vulture identification projects have been launched over the years. The annual vulture ringing by Peter Bridgeford in the Namib-Naukluft Park has been going for over 20 years, and to date over 800 lappet-faced vultures have been individually marked with leg rings or wing tags.

In Khomas and Etosha an annual white-backed vulture marking project is managed by members of the public who hold special permits to work with vultures, as well as by Ministry of Environment and Tourism officials.

One accepted activity to support vultures is a 'vulture restaurant' where uncontaminated food is placed for the birds at a specific site. There are a number of pros and cons associated with feeding vultures and there can be fatalities if care is not taken with the history of any veterinary treatment of a carcasses used at the site, according to NARREC.

In 2010 a pamphlet providing basic information on 'vulture restaurants' and specifically the dangers of certain pharmaceuticals was printed and widely distributed in Namibia.

"Namibia has a very good conservation track record and large areas of open rangeland. However, we cannot afford to be complacent in view of the current declines in various populations locally, regionally and globally," the statement concludes.

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