Are vulture restaurants needed to sustain the densest breeding population of the African white-backed vulture?

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Are vulture restaurants needed to sustain the densest breeding population of the African white-backed vulture?by Mikel Cherbero and Tom Laffleur

Published by Charlotte Recapet the August 3, 2018 on 12:00 PM

As obligate scavengers, vultures are entirely dependent on carrion. These last decades, carrion abundance has decreased in many areas. The two main causes of this trend are clearly identified. Natural habitat destruction reduces wild animal carrion abundance, which is the natural resource of scavengers. At the same time, the modification of agricultural practices, essentially the generalization of carcass rendering, has reduced the availability of cattle carrion. These factors have led to a negative trend on scavenger populations. This is especially the case in Africa, where most of avian scavenger species are now endangered. African savanna ecosystems were originally rich in avian scavengers, but most of the species are actually endangered.


White-backed vultures feeding on zebra carrion - Bernard Dupont - CC BY-SA 2.0

In this study, authors model the carrion ecology of an ecosystem in Swaziland which is home to the densest breeding population of the African white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus), a critically endangered species. They also study other threatened scavenger species of Swaziland: white-headed vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis), Nubian vulture (Torgos tracheliotos), marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer), tawny eagle (Aquila rapax) and bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus). The purpose of this work is to better understand the feeding activity of the white backed vulture and to modelize population trends for these six species (using life-history traits and modelization of carrion availability), and based on these results authors discuss if the establishment of vulture restaurants would be beneficious.

They first calculated the foraging radius (r) of the white-backed vulture, based on the Foraging radius concept theory. The foraging radius represents the radial distance from the nest in which the energy inputs are greater than the costs of feeding and needs of the vulture and its litter. This theory is adapted to this species, because vulture always comes back to the nest after feeding. They compiled available bibliography and collected data on metabolism and life-history parameters of the species. Using this data, they applied a model created with the same purpose by Ruxton & Houston in 2002 for the Ruppell’s vulture (Gyps rueppellii), which is phylogenetically and ecologically close to the white backed vulture.

The results shows that the foraging radius is 260 km in the main part of the year. This radius is large, vultures can feed in neighboring countries (South Africa, Mozambique), it implies an international cooperation in the management of these endangered populations. A positive aspect is that individuals can spread over large area, so the studied population can form or sustain other populations. On the other hand this radius is much greater than the natural reserve surface, thus vultures can be exposed to several risks, like poisoning, when they are feeding. When vulture have to feed a chick, energy needs are logically greater so the foraging radius is reduced to 40 km. Carrion availability is more problematic during this period, which should therefore be targeted if vulture restaurants are setted up.

Using novel Population Dynamics P-Systems, they show that carrion provided by wild ungulates biomass is currently enough to sustain this vulture species. According to the model, white-backed vulture population will continue increasing in Swaziland, and will pass from approximately 300 pairs to more than 500 in twenty years. The other studied avian scavenger populations will follow the same trend, but are far less abundant than white-backed vulture. The model shows also that three main species are composing vultures’ food: the Impala (Aepyceros melampus), the blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) and the plains zebra (Equus burchelli) represent 55 % of total carrion.

However, in light of the forecasted population increases, food will become a limiting factor. This is particularly true for the period from November to April, for which the model show a carrion deficit. During this period African vultures are not breeding so they can go far away to feed themselves. But the model also shows a carrion deficit during the breeding season after five to thirteen years of simulation. This lack of food resources can be considered as a natural limiting factor. According to the model, the area has probably reach its maximum carrying capacity after twenty years.

To conclude, authors suggest that setting up supplementary feeding stations in Swaziland should be seriously considered, especially during the breeding season. Good managed restaurants would have several advantages : secure the viability of the population and thus increase its capacity to act as a source population, avoid poisoning risks and create the opportunity to capture and tag vultures. This last point would allow to improve knowledge about the avian scavenger species, necessary for a more effective conservatory management.

Cited study: Kane A., Jackson A.L., Monadjem A., Colomer M. A., Margalida A., 2015. Carrion ecology modelling for vulture conservation : are vulture restaurants needed to sustain the densest breeding population of the African white-backed vulture? Animal Conservation (18) 279-286.

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