Bearded Vulture

Adult bearded vulture (gypaetus barbatus) or Lammergeier sitting on the rocky. Animal in natural environment.

The African Raptor Centre’s Bearded Vulture Breeding Programme

Bearded Vulture numbers in the Drakensberg mountains are dwindling and there is a serious risk of the birds disappearing from the wild in the near future.

Bearded Vulture

Adult bearded vulture (gypaetus barbatus) or Lammergeier sitting on the rocky. Animal in natural environment.

The African Bird of Prey Sanctuary is home to several species of raptors many of whom have been injured or have imprinted onto humans rendering their release into the wild impossible, but the organization are also involved in a complex and challenging breeding programme that aims to restore the numbers of Bearded Vultures in the wild.

Bearded Vulture numbers in the wild have sharply declined in recent times and these beautiful and ecologically vital birds are listed as regionally endangered.

African Raptor Centre fight to maintain Bearded Vulture numbers

There are estimated to be just 100 breeding pairs and a total population of only 320 birds left in the wild.

That is where the African Raptor Centre come in. Their Bird Sanctuary puts on regular flying shows at their facility just outside Pietermaritzburg showcasing the beauty of many species of raptor found in South Africa and uses the money raised from modest entry fees to fund a breeding programme beset by enormous challenges.

The birds are threatened by human development in multiple ways.

“Bearded Vultures are threatened by multiple factors,” say the African Raptor centre. 

“They collide with, or get electrocuted by power-lines. 

“They get poisoned when ingesting poisoned bait that is put out by farmers for jackal. 

“Their body parts are also used in the traditional muthi industry and, as if this is not enough, the latest threat looming is the proposal of wind farms in the high mountain areas of Lesotho. These massive turbines, while providing a quick and renewable form of energy, have proved lethal to flying birds utilizing the same wind corridors. The construction of one such wind farm, made up of 200 turbines, is planned for in the very core of the Bearded Vultures’ home range. KZN Wildlife ecologists predict that if they go ahead with the proposed development, the Bearded Vulture will be gone from our skies in 14 years.”

A vital cog in our ecosystem

The various species of vulture play an integral part in our ecosystem, acting as the ‘garbage disposal’ of the animal kingdom. Their highly acidic stomachs mean they are able to consume carcasses infected with diseases such as rabies without spreading the disease or coming to harm in any way.

Birds like the Bearded and Cape Vultures have begun to increasingly fall victim to poachers who kill the birds to prevent them from circling above a kill and alerting Park Rangers and farmers to the death of an animal.

“Many of the factors threatening Bearded Vultures today are human induced and in order for this species to survive, implemented education and public awareness objectives must lead to attitude and behaviour change. 

“A project goal therefore, is to create a general public that was not only informed about Bearded Vultures, but appreciative enough of the species to want to take active part in their custodianship. While this may be an extremely challenging aspiration, the iconic nature of the bearded vulture and its unique characteristics make it certainly worthy of the attempt.

“The only Bearded Vulture currently in captivity in the southern hemisphere is a non-releasable female based at the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary. Confiscated from a sangoma, she is not able to fly and so will spear-head this awareness campaign and later join a captive breeding program.

“The establishment of a captive breeding program will create a genetic reservoir to supplement dwindling wild populations and to safeguard against species extinction. This pro-active approach has been successfully accomplished in Europe with the northern Bearded Vultures. Project success rate should, therefore be high, as we would be replicating and building on established conservation breeding methods.”

Bearded vultures breed in winter and, while they lay two eggs, only a single chick is raised with the younger usually eaten by the older stronger offspring. The birds nest in potholes in mountainsides and getting to the nests proves difficult and expensive, but harvesting these second eggs is the key to ensuring the birds endure beyond our generation. 

“We propose that some of these biologically redundant second eggs be carefully harvested and the chicks be raised by surrogate European parent birds at the Sanctuary. A genetically-viable founder population of 20 captive birds will be created over the next five years. These youngsters will, in turn, be ready to breed at five or six years of age. This means that young vultures bred will be released into safe wild areas from the year 2018 onwards.”

How you can help save the Bearded Vulture

Funded only by gate receipts and a small grant from the Lotto fund the African Raptor Centre have encouraged concerned members of the public to support this initiative in whatever way they can, whether it be through donations or offering assistance on the egg harvesting expeditions.

“Please contact us if you wish to see the complete project plan and perhaps consider where you may be able to help; cash, your services or your product. 

“Maybe you can provide a couple of bags of cement, provide a load of sand or maybe you are moved to donate a lump sum. It will all be of help and appreciated. If we break this project up into pieces we can pull it off. Get involved. We all have different resources, networks and skills.”

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