New study explores establishing a new Bearded Vulture population in South Africa

3 Jun 2020 - 15:00

Bearded Vulture nest in the wild.  Photo:  Sonja Krueger

One of the most threatened vultures in Southern Africa

The Bearded Vulture is one of the most threatened vultures in Southern Africa, with only around 100 breeding pairs left in the wild. In the past, the species was once far more widespread, occurring in both the Eastern and Western Cape, all the way down to Cape Town. However, the species range is now restricted to the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains of Lesotho and South Africa.

The species is threatened by poisoning, electrocutions and collisions with powerlines, and more recently threats from wind energy developments. Scientists predict that without intervention the population could completely disappear within the next 50 years. Now, conservationists are proposing that a new population be established elsewhere in South Africa to help safeguard the species’ future.

Where best to establish the new population

The new study, led by scientists at the University of Cape Town and published in the journal Ostrich explores where best to establish this new population. The study identifies five potential locations within the species historic South African range, in both the Eastern and Western Cape, and explores the potential benefits and threats present at each site. The study also found that any reintroduction would be far more likely to succeed if a captive breeding population is established first.

Based on these findings, and motivated by successful reintroductions of the species in Europe, the Bearded Vulture Recovery Programme has now initiated a captive breeding programme, ‘Bred 4 The Wild’, under the management of Ms. Shannon Hoffman.

This breeding programme aims to supply young captive bred vultures for the proposed reintroduction. “We have already successfully reared 7 chicks from eggs that were taken from wild nests”, says Dr Sonja Krüger, an author of the study and Ecologist with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife who coordinates the Bearded Vulture Recovery Programme. She explains that these egg removals will have no affect on the wild population because bearded vultures lay two eggs, only one of which ever survives to fledge.

However, before any reintroduction programme can begin more research is still required. “Our study helps give a general idea of potential areas to consider for the reintroduction”, says lead author Christiaan W. Brink, a PhD student at UCT, “However, it is now vitally important to ground truth their suitability and engage with stakeholders to ensure it is safe for the species to return”.

Dr Krüger explains “that poisoning, for example the use of poison to control predator numbers and avoid livestock losses, is the single most important cause of bearded vulture declines in southern Africa”. She continues “landowner cooperation within a release area will therefore be vital to the success of any reintroduction project”

Insurance Policy against Extinction

Associate Professor Arjun Amar, who supervised the research said “Our study suggests that establishing a new population away from the species’ current range can act as an insurance policy against the extinction of this population”.  He continued “successful reintroductions in Europe have shown that such a strategy can work for this species – and is therefore something that we need to start exploring here in Southern Africa; our study is the first attempt to explore its feasibility”.

Link to the paper here:

Story:  Arjun Amar

Photo:  Sonja Kruger