WATCH | Endangered vultures prepped for release in Zululand after recovering from poisoning

24 June 2020 - 14:49 By Orrin Singh

After having successfully clawed their way back from the brink of death, three African white-backed vultures - a critically endangered species - are set to be released in Zululand on Wednesday. 

The birds of prey were part of a group of vultures which were rescued after a spate of poisoning incidents in the Zululand region last year. 

In June last year TimesLIVE reported on the grim discovery of 27 vulture carcasses which were found dead in poison-related incidents within the space of a week.

The surviving birds, which were housed and treated at Raptor Rescue, a rehabilitation centre for African birds of prey near Pietermaritzburg, were tagged, fitted with trackers and had blood specimens taken to determine their sex on Wednesday morning.

They are to be released at Manyoni Private Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal. 

Conservationists believe the culprits who poisoned the vultures planned to use the carcasses for traditional medicine.

The rescue, rehabilitation and release of the vultures was a collaborative effort between Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Raptor Rescue and Wildlife ACT, which have partnered to form the Zululand Vulture Project. 

Animal scientist for mammals and birds at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Brent Coverdale, said vultures had unfortunately received a lot of negative publicity due to the manner in which they have been portrayed in Hollywood films but played an important role in the ecosystem.

“They are somewhat of the 'clean up crew' and help to reduce the spread of disease by cleaning up carcasses." 

Coverdale said they were working closely with police and environmental management inspectors to build up evidence about the poisoning incidents. 

“We are building cases and a list of suspects so that when we do get a breakthrough we have enough evidence to secure a conviction." 

Ben Hoffman, Chris Kelly and Brent Cloverdale of the Zululand Vulture Project with a rehabilitated African white-backed vulture which was released on Wednesday, June 24 2020.
Ben Hoffman, Chris Kelly and Brent Cloverdale of the Zululand Vulture Project with a rehabilitated African white-backed vulture which was released on Wednesday, June 24 2020.
Image: Orrin Singh

Chris Kelly, co-founder of Wildlife ACT and director of species conservation, said the vultures were to be released in the centre of the Zululand cluster which would give the birds a good chance of finding their home again. He said they hoped that the data collected from the birds would help them better understand their movements. 

“We're looking at the fine-scale movements, trying to understand the habitat they're using, the space where they're roosting, where they end up nesting and which areas they're feeding - it's all for us to implement better management practices." 

Ben Hoffman, director of Raptor Rescue, said the vultures had been rehabilitated for six months to ensure the poison was completely out their system before their release. 

“They came through and were assessed by our vet who administered medicine to combat the poisoning. We got them fat and then got them thin so that they use any body fat, because that is where the poison is stored. We kept them for a couple of months to ensure the poison is completely out of there system before release," he said.