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A White-backed vulture nesting haven on the Highveld, Zimbabwe

Vultures may not feature in many beauty or popularity contests, but when it comes to keeping ecosystems clean and healthy, they’re the top dogs. Yet their survival may rest on havens such as Shangani Holistic in Zimbabwe, where they are allowed to nest in peace, free from human threats.

These scavengers, which soar majestically across the skies and clean up carrion, are one of the world’s most imperilled birds. Their numbers in Africa have plummeted by over 60% in the last 30 years, and half of the 23 vulture species are at risk of extinction.  The top driving forces behind the collapse includes poisoning, habitat loss, electrocution, and persecution.

The types of poisoning to which vultures are exposed vary depending on the region of the world. In South Asia, the biggest killer is the veterinary drug diclofenac , where it has caused some populations to decline almost completely; in Africa, it’s pesticides like Furadan and poisons like cyanide which are used mostly in poaching; and in North America, it’s lead from spent ammunition5.

Many conservation efforts have been initiated to reduce and remove threats to vultures, including Vulture Safe Zones, the first of which were established in Zimbabwe in 2020, habitat rehabilitation, and the protection of vulture breeding areas. Vulture Safe Zones (VSZs) are large areas of concerted conservation efforts to remove the threats vultures face, allowing the birds to forage and breed in safety. To protect vast enough areas requires working with a wide-range of communities and private farm owners for vulture-safe landscapes.

A nesting haven

Shangani Holistic, a cattle farm which doubles up as a wildlife reserve, is part of a heterogeneous landscape used by vultures and it plays an important role in connecting suitable habitats for this wide-ranging scavenger. Most importantly, Shangani Holistic has in the last 10 years proven to be an important nesting site for the White-backed vulture (Gyps africanus). Since the first sighting of 11 White-backed vulture pairs nesting on the ranch in 2014, numbers have been rising, with 36 nesting pairs successfully breeding in 2023. According to the IUCN Red List, this species, numbering 270 000, is the most widespread and common vulture in Africa, and is classified as Critically Endangered.

The Shangani nesting site is of particular interest as it occurs on the highveld – whereas most, if not all nesting records for the species have been on lower altitudes within Zimbabwe. Shangani Holistic therefore provides an important haven for nesting vultures outside state protected areas, forming a safe zone for the vultures within an increasingly disturbed landscape.

The nesting surveys on Shangani Holistic have over the years seen the involvement of many keen researchers and staff from the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Bulawayo, BirdLife Zimbabwe, VULPRO, CIRAD, and Shangani Holistic. The nesting birds have also inadvertently provided NUST students with a wild laboratory,giving them an opportunity to observe the birds on their nests, an experience that arouses awe in both first time and seasoned observers. Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation (OGRC) funded and partnered with NUST to conduct the study.

Vultures and people

Work on the Shangani Holistic vultures has evolved and expanded to include communities neighbouring the ranches, as conservation of the species depends on the coordination of multiple stakeholders.

Work with communities has included conservation education and an assessment of attitudes, perceptions and knowledge of vultures and their ecology. Communities recognise the ecosystem services provided by vultures:

“These birds inform us of where our cattle carcasses are. This way, I can go to the carcass after vultures have finished feeding and burn the remaining bones to reduce chances of botulism. Without vultures, my herd would be exposed to botulism and die off, leaving me poorer.” 

The recognition of the importance of vultures to communities is critical to their survival in the area.

Without borders

The recognition of the importance of Shangani Holistic for breeding vultures has over the years raised questions on the ecology and behaviour of these birds. Vultures are not a sedentary species, so where do they go from Shangani? What spaces are they using? What areas are they connected to?  And where do conservation efforts need to be increased?

The first step towards answering these questions has been to deploy satellite transmitters on a few individual White-backed vultures and track their movements. It is projected that the tagged birds will give information on landscape connectivity, habitat suitability, and indications of where to focus conservation efforts.

The data received from the satellite transmitters deployed have so far shown the birds to be highly mobile, and largely dependent on protected areas. For example, “Ngoni” a three-year old bird, has stamped its ‘aerial passport’ in five countries within two months, mostly using different types of protected areas and private farms. This is testament to the need for international and regional conservation efforts if ‘safe zones’ are to be effective.

To conclude, vulture work on Shangani Holistic has shown the importance of intact landscapes for the survival (and thriving) of keystone species such as the White-backed vulture. Such areas offer havens for wildlife within landscapes that are increasingly dominated by man. The more such havens there are, the greater the hope for functional and ecological connectivity, ecological intactness and resilience and the creation of safe spaces for wildlife, and for people.

Dr Josephine Mundava holds a PhD in Avian Ecology, and she is a senior lecturer in the Department of Forest Resources and Wildlife Management at the National University of Science and Technology, Zimbabwe.

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