The Namibian (Windhoek)

29 November 2012

Namibia: Pilots Assist Vulture Conservation

TWO Namibian pilots assisted with a vulture conservation project in the Namib-Naukluft Park last month.

Since 1991, lappet-faced vulture chicks have been ringed and monitored in this park. In 2001, an aircraft was used for the first time to find occupied nests in the vast plains of the Namib.

Lappet-faced vultures make their nests on tree tops. Their wingspan of almost three metres does not allow them to build their nests in the canopy of the tree. From the air, the huge nests, at times more than two metres in diameter, are visible. Chicks and even eggs can be seen and the occupied nests are recorded on a GPS.

“To inspect the thousands of trees from the ground would take many weeks. With the aircraft, 18 hours of flying is enough to cover the breeding area of these birds in the Namib-Naukluft Park,” said Peter Bridgeford of Vultures Namibia.

The aerial survey started at Ganab in the Namib-Naukluft Park where Paul van Schalkwyk piloted his Cessna 170 and Gustav Holz of the WestAir Wings Group flew his Maule M5.

The survey then covered the area between the Swakop and Kuiseb rivers. According to Bridgeford this is the area with the highest concentration of breeding lappet-faced vultures in the park.

Peter Keil of WestAir Wings Group flew a part of the survey. By the evening, most of the area had been covered. On Tuesday, Paul van Schalkwyk and Peter Bridgeford completed the area around Mirabib before flying south to the Tsondab River. Meanwhile, Gustav Holtz and Telané Greyling were searching the Kamberg area for nests. The two teams met the ground crew at Sesriem and refuelled. After lunch the Sesriem and Sossusvlei area was completed.

“With one aircraft, the complete survey usually takes four days and Vultures Namibia takes this opportunity to thank Paul and Gustav for donating their aircraft, time and fuel. Other sponsors are also thanked for their financial contributions,” said Bridgeford.

An extension ladder is used to reach the nest. The chick is carefully placed in a special bag and taken down to a table where it is processed. First a numbered metal ring is fitted around a leg and then a yellow plastic, numbered tag is fitted to the right wing. After measuring the wing and tail, it is weighed and returned to the nest. Nest measurements and tree height are recorded and then the team moves to the next nest.

The chicks are fitted with a metal leg ring to identify the bird. The wing tag is easily seen when the bird is feeding or perched and thus its movements can be tracked. Although the birds are safe in the Namib-Naukluft Park, they also feed on farms and this is when they face the risk of poisoning, the biggest threat to vultures in Namibia. Other threats include collision with power lines, electrocution on power pylons, drowning in steep-sided farm reservoirs, killing for traditional medicine and disturbance or destruction of nesting sites.

Lappet-faced and white-backed vultures are marked every breeding season in the Etosha National Park, Namib-Naukluft Park and on farms in the Windhoek area. Cape vultures from the Waterberg have also been marked.

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