2 September marked International Vulture Awareness Day, and the Ford Wildlife Foundation (FWF) supported an innovative initiative to protect our region’s biodiversity through environmental education, research and conservation projects across sub-Saharan Africa.
At the core of its mission is the locally assembled Ford Ranger Double Cab 4×4, a key mobility asset that is advancing Cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres) research in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and the Eastern Cape.
The Cape vulture’s legacy as a sentinel of South Africa’s skies stretches back to the 1960s, a period that saw the thriving existence of 32 breeding colonies. However, an alarming decline to just 11 active breeding colonies in 2015 highlighted the pressing need for intervention. Threats such as habitat degradation, powerline collisions, and the unsustainable use of vulture body parts have triggered a highly concerning decline for these iconic birds.
“International Vulture Awareness Day serves as a poignant reminder of the fragile balance within our ecosystems,” says Lynda du Plessis, FWF manager. “The Cape Vulture Conservation Project led by the African Raptor Centre encapsulates our commitment not only to raising awareness but also taking tangible actions to protect these magnificent birds, with the assistance of our Ford Ranger.”
The Ford Ranger bakkie, which is produced at Ford’s Silverton Assembly Plant in Pretoria, blends technology and capability – making it an essential tool for deciphering Cape vulture behaviours. Designed to navigate rugged landscapes with ease, the Ranger empowers the project members to confidently access remote locations in KZN and the Eastern Cape.
For the Cape vulture project, the Ford Ranger functions as a mobile research hub, allowing experts to study vulture behaviours, habitat dynamics and the consequences of anthropogenic changes. With Cape vulture populations moving from endangered status to vulnerable, the project showcases the successful results of committed conservation and consistent monitoring.
The FWF’s support for the Cape Vulture Conservation Project concentrates on two colonies, located at Msikaba near Lusukisiki in the Eastern Cape and Oribi Gorge, close to Port Shepstone in KZN. In these areas, researchers delve into the impact of human activity and land-use changes, including an assessment of the effects of the significant Mtentu and Msikaba mega bridges that are currently under construction as part of the N2 Wild Coast Road project that will provide a more direct link between Durban and East London.
Dr Morgan Pfeiffer’s 2016 University of KwaZulu-Natal PhD thesis represented a pioneering step in unravelling the complexities of Cape vultures. With a focus on deciphering potential pressures and crafting conservation strategies, this work established the foundation for understanding these remarkable creatures. Valuable insights from the monitoring of the Msikaba colony between 2012 and 2015 provided essential information on foraging patterns, preferred habitats, and the hazards linked to wind-turbine collisions. Leveraging community perceptions as a tool, threats to Cape vultures have been identified and mitigated, carving a path toward co-existence.
The reclassification of Cape vultures from endangered to vulnerable in 2021 stands as a testament to the combined impact of protection, rescue initiatives, and unwavering vigilance. Dr A. Lee’s observations in Birdlife Magazine (March/April 2022) emphasise the remarkable trajectory of these vultures, echoing the positive influence of sustained monitoring.
“My role as a dedicated vulture enthusiast takes the spotlight,” said Jacqui Gray, a research scientist on the Cape Vulture Conservation Project. “Since 2021, I’ve been deeply committed to these birds, as I monitor the Oribi colony and more recently the Msikaba colony. Amplifying this commitment is the accessibility granted by the Ford Ranger, generously provided by the Ford Wildlife Foundation. This invaluable asset allows me to reach remote areas where the colonies are located, contributing to the vital conservation efforts.”
In 2023, the project is broadening its scope. It currently includes the Msikaba colony, peripheral nesting sites, a fledgling colony at Leopard Rock in Eastern Cape, and the historic Umtamvuna colony in KZN. Following many years of a decline in vulture numbers, signs of growth are now surfacing that shed light on Cape vulture population dynamics. Behind the data lies the core objective: a mission to uncover the factors driving population growth, breeding success, and movement patterns between colonies. Guiding this effort are conservation luminaries such as Ben Hoffman from the African Raptor Centre, Professor Colleen T. Downs (UKZN), the NRF Research Chair in ecosystem health and biodiversity in KZN and the Eastern Cape, and Dr Yvette Ehlers-Smith (UKZN), the regional ecologist for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.
The Ford Wildlife Foundation and the Cape Vulture Conservation Project exemplify unwavering commitment to environmental research and conservation. It is a journey of hope, science and human endeavour, interwoven into the nation’s natural heritage, where Cape vultures once again grace the skies with their soaring presence.