Timbavati & EWT Vulture Conservation & Research gets off the ground

Vultures are in big trouble. All over Africa populations are declining. South Africa is no exception. Poisoning, “muti” killings, loss of habitat and scarcity of prey are some of the reasons for the decline


Dr Graeme Naylor, a passionate conservationist and landowner in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, had an idea. The Timbavati has a scientifically formulated impala culling programme as well as limited professional hunting activity. By making a small portion of carcasses from these activities available to vultures, maybe the birds could be “persuaded” to stay in protected areas thereby keeping them safe? Vultures range over huge areas looking for food. Unfortunately, this ranging behaviour often takes them out of protected areas exposing them to hostile and often fatal environments.

Armed with his idea, and with the blessing of the Timbavati, Graeme approached the Endangered Wildlife Trust. As it happens his idea dovetailed perfectly with the EWT’s ongoing bird of prey research. After much discussion the partnership was airborne.

This joint effort will help address threats to vultures; the logic being, the better we understand the vultures, the better we can conserve them. And this programme can help fill in research gaps concerning vultures.

Here’s how it works. Carcasses are placed randomly in the Timbavati and monitored by a team. To catch the vultures, an ethical and internationally recognised method is used by making use of “noose strings”. These are strands of strong chord to which nooses are attached. The “noose strings” are positioned close to the bait carcass. When vultures fly over, they see the carcass, land nearby and as they approach on the ground they step into the noose and get caught. The team is nearby and watching for this. It’s easy to spot when a vulture’s been caught in a noose - it will jump up and down and flap its wings trying to escape. The team drives up to the trapped bird, the noose is removed.

Working quickly and quietly to minimise stress, a metal ID ring with a unique number is fitted to the bird’s leg. Measurements and weight are recorded and sometimes a tracking unit (subject to availability) is fitted as well. These units are invaluable; they can tell us how far the birds travel and factors affecting their movements can be deduced           

All data collected is submitted to a central database housed by SAFRING at the University of Cape Town. All this data is freely available for any researcher who may want to use it.

To date a number of birds have been tagged and monitored. Not without humour - a hooded vulture named Thea turned out to be Theo after a tiny drop of his blood was sent to a lab for molecular sex determination.

A special metal ring with a unique number is fitted to a vulture's leg

A Lappet-faced vulture with a special tracking unit on its back provides a wealth of data

As Dr Naylor says, “Our partnership with the EWT is a great example of the Timbavati’s forward looking approach to conservation and also demonstrates what we mean about sustainable utilisation.”

If you’d like to make a contribution towards keeping our vultures in the sky, please contact Krystle Woodward at office@timbavati.co.za.