White-backed Vultures to become SA’s Dodo without local support

Durban Natural Science Museum’s ornithologist – David Allan – recently spent some time at Zulu Rock and gave us a greater insight to the importance of supporting conservation areas and game reserves that are home to ‘red data’ species.

Birds are appropriate indicators of an ecosystem’s health because they are popular and well-studied. Additionally, the availability of significant, long-term datasets in South Africa makes birds a good choice for early-warning systems for climate change impacts and other systematic, ecosystem-wide threats to broader biodiversity. Habitat loss and degradation due to mining, urban expansion and inappropriate agricultural practices continue to jeopardise our most critical sites for biodiversity. New threats have also emerged, such as windfarms and fracking, while climate change and habitat loss still remain two of the biggest threats to our birds. 

The IUCN Red List uses quantitative criteria based on the size of population, rate of decline and the area of distribution, to assign species to one of seven extinction risks. The risks range from ‘Critically Endangered’ (one step away from extinction) to ‘Least Concern’. Currently there are 132 species now listed as regionally threatened.

David Allan was recently invited to conduct a brief survey of the Bird Life at Zulu Rock. The greater Babanango Valley Private Nature Reserve boasts a bird list of 265 species, David recorded an impressive 128 species over the few days he spent with us. Five of the species he encountered belong to the ‘Red Data’ category. These being the White-backed Vulture (globally and nationally ‘Critically Endangered’), the Southern Bald Ibis (globally and nationally ‘Vulnerable’), the Blue Crane (globally ‘Vulnerable’), the Tawny Eagle (nationally ‘Endangered’), and the Lanner Falcon (nationally ‘Vulnerable’). Both the total number of birds recorded at Zulu Rock and the number of ‘Red Data’ species are certain to rise as coverage of this magnificent protected area increases.

Although the prospect of having bird species in such close proximity to us being on the verge of extinction is nothing short of alarming – it’s also positive that we now have tools like the Red List categorisations to identify and assess what species need our immediate attention and conservation efforts. The next step is, now that we know certain species are endangered – what can we do about it to stop them suffering the same irreversible fate as the Dodo bird?

What David found most encouraging in his recent trip to Zulu Rock Game Lodge, is the recent investment and re-invigoration of game reserves and conservation areas in the Babanango region of northern KwaZulu Natal. The positive shift in mind set in this area has been through a partnership formed over the past two years with our owners and the local community to work together to resuscitate the areas’ extraordinary biodiversity, which lends itself to the protection of birdlife and the reintroduction of game, potentially including the big five. It also forms part of the Umfolozi Biodiversity Economy Node development, a chain of linked private protected areas, private game farms and communal land, with the potential to create a conservation zone of 20,000 hectares.

The potential of a reserve like ours and the refreshing buy-in from the local community means that the chance of saving critically endangered species like the White-backed Vulture is a real possibility. However, the responsibility to protect these magnificent birds still lies with us. If reserves like ours don’t get the support from tourists locally and abroad to continue our conservation efforts – then the White-backed Vulture will become no more than a fairy tale in storybooks for future generations…South Africa’s very own Dodo.