Africa
12 Sep 2017

BirdWatch Zambia collects data about vulture movements

Juvenile White-backed vulture takes off with wing tags and GSM tracking unit at Lemba farm in Chisamba IBA © BWZ
Juvenile White-backed vulture takes off with wing tags and GSM tracking unit at Lemba farm in Chisamba IBA © BWZ
By Chaona Phiri

In July 2016, BirdWatch Zambia (BirdLife Partner in Zambia) embarked on a project to establish safe feeding and roosting areas for vultures – known as Vulture Safe Zones. This was accomplished through partnership and dialogue with farm owners to influence farm management practices, to protect and allow vultures to thrive in these farmland areas.

With funding from BirdLife International, BirdWatch Zambia (BWZ) was able to conduct population surveys covering 73000 hectares and 475km of transects within and around Chisamba, an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA). The surveys that were first conducted in December 2016 and repeated in June 2017, recorded well over 1300 vultures, specifically 3 species; the White-backed Vulture, Hooded Vulture and Lappet-faced Vulture.

Site branding at Chartonel estates, a Vulture Safe Zone within Chisamba IBA © BWZ

To date, approximately 35000 hectares of private farmland is a safe feeding area for vultures through influencing farm management practices in and around Chisamba IBA. Furthermore, additional funding has been secured from the Isdell Family Foundation targeting 20000 hectares between Chisamba and Kafue Flats IBAs (Blue Lagoon and Lochinvar national parks) so that a safe feeding corridor is created from the protected area where these birds are most likely breeding.

From 10–16 August 2017, BWZ conducted ground nest surveys on the Kafue Flats IBA, a wetland surrounded by seasonally flooded savanna woodlands and flat-topped Acacia species. An average nest density of 7nests/km² in a survey of 9000km² was recorded. Results showed that the nesting habitat was not continuous but fragmented with the largest fragment covering about 2500km². At least 50 active vulture nests (49 White-backed vulture and 1 Lappet-faced vulture) were found. The Kafue flats which is about 85km away from the Chisamba vulture safe zone appears to be a key site for breeding vultures. BWZ hopes to secure funding for aerial surveys in the future to compliment the information gathered from ground surveys.

In addition to conducting ground surveys, Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) and satellite tracking units were put on one Hooded Vulture and 2 White-backed Vultures in Chisamba. Wing tags were also put on these birds to track their movement.

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Nesting White-backed vultures in Blue Lagoon National park (Kafue Flats IBA) © BWZ

Andre Botha, Special Projects Manager at Endangered Wildlife Trust made the survey possible and the Leslie Brown Foundation sponsored the training of BWZ staff. Thanks to the Hawk Conservancy Trust that covered Mr Botha’s time and the Raptor Research Foundation, Dr Ralph Buij (Wageningen University - Netherlands) for the GSM units, wildlife computers (US) for the satellite units, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks as well as the farm owners and managers at Mubanga (Lemba) and Fringilla farms. Some very interesting data on the activities of the tagged birds is already being collected and used to fill the knowledge gap about vulture movements.