Clad in green, Kelvin Mkandawire is part of a group of explorers who patrol the vast plains of the Kafue Flats. On this hot, windy afternoon, they conduct ground nest surveys of vultures in this important bird and biodiversity area, home to over 450 species of animals and birds, including vultures.
Vulture populations in Zambia have declined catastrophically over the past 30 years. This situation is repeated across Africa, where vulture populations have declined by up to 97%. Seven species of vulture live in Zambia, four of which are critically endangered and two are critically endangered. Like the rest of Africa, the vulture populations in Zambia have suffered human-made population decreases of up to 98% in some species, such as the white-headed vulture Trigonoceps occipitalis and the white-backed vulture Gyps africanus. The main culprit is poisoning: either accidentally by forgetting animal carcasses that have been treated with painkillers toxic to vultures, or on purpose.
“Although vultures play a critical role in the environment, their numbers have declined significantly over the past three decades, challenging the delicate ecological balance,” explains Kelvin Mkandawire, project research assistant at BirdWatch Zambia (BirdLife partner).
Bald Vulture, Copyright Paul Donald, from the Surfbirds Galleries
To save the country’s dwindling vulture populations, BirdWatch Zambia is creating a non-toxic environment through the establishment of Vulture Safe Zones – a system that has proven successful across Asia so far.
The Vulture Safe Zones are established in collaboration with farm owners and with the support of the National Geographic Society. These areas offer vultures safe feeding and resting places with no risk of poisoning. Since the initiative started in 2017, BirdWatch Zambia has expanded it to three farms in Chisamba. Today, the Vulture Safe Zones cover a thousand square kilometers of land, including farms and a game reserve.
“It’s always exciting to work with BirdWatch Zambia and I’m happy to be part of the team that drives the conservation and protection of endangered birds like vultures,” says Nicola Carruthers, ecologist at Munyamadzi Game Reserve, the only game you reserve so far with a vulture safety zone.
We hope that the success of these sites will significantly stem the decline in the vulture population in Zambia. Since establishing vulture-safe zones, BirdWatch Zambia has been able to facilitate consistent research on vultures and several other bird species within the sites. As a result, vulture sanctuaries are not only safe havens for vultures, but also important outposts for monitoring vulture populations outside of sanctuaries. The birds are now regularly surveyed, threats analyzed and vultures have even been tagged to study their movement.
“These vulture-safe zones promote vulture population protection and are an important strategy for long-term vulture survival in the country and across the country,” added Mkandawire.
BirdWatch Zambia not only monitors species populations annually, but also checks whether the vulture-safe zones meet the correct criteria and whether vultures are threatened in the region.
Involving local communities is an essential aspect of nature conservation. To this end, BirdWatch Zambia engages local residents and raises awareness of the ecological importance of vultures and the need to save them. Farm owners, managers and workers working in the Vulture Safe Zones will be educated about the importance of protecting natural habitats from man-made threats. An education and awareness campaign in the region has also targeted school children and their parents who own, manage or work on these farms. This dialogue aims to change the perception of local vultures and to influence management practices. This can lay the foundation for future expansions: In cooperation with partners, BirdWatch Zambia aims to enlarge the area of the vulture protection zones in the country to at least 2,500 square kilometers by 2025.
Vultures may not be the prettiest of birds, but their presence is now increasingly valued in the vulture safety zones. At the Fringilla farm where BirdWatch Zambia has commemorated International Vulture Awareness Day for the past few years, the local community is beginning to recognize and appreciate the importance of these critically endangered birds with whom they share their environment.
“I never knew I could see vultures in these areas and how big they were. It would be nice to go to vulture-proof zones more often to appreciate these birds, ”says Mirriam Chanda, a student at Mwayasunka School who has participated in BirdWatch Zambia activities in the area.
“Vultures are not valued, but they are extremely important. I’ve seen how quickly they can clean up corpses. Not only is this process quick and inexpensive when it comes to waste disposal, it also helps reduce the spread of disease among the animals here on the farm, ”says Joleyza Mboozi, supervisor at the Fringilla farm.
“To do this, we need more resources to expand this vulture protection model, which could also be replicated elsewhere on the continent,” concludes Mkandawire.
You can find more information about the vulture protection work of BirdWatch Zambia at www.birdwatchzambia.org/vulture-safe-zones/