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To save South African vultures, learning to love them

Pair of conservationists put positive spin on vultures’ image in efforts to save them

- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2011

HARTBEESPOORT, SOUTH AFRICA Many people associate vultures with death and decay.

However, a couple of conservationists in South Africa are trying to show the public what they love and admire about these birds in order to try to save them.

"No one's going to try to save a species if they don't love them," said Kerri Wolter.

Ms. Wolter and partner Walter Neser run the Vulture Program, where visitors can see the birds as they do - as loyal mates, devoted parents and resourceful foragers, as well as spectacular fliers.

Visitors to the Vulture Program, a 25-acre plot with spectacular views of the Magaliesberg Mountains near Johannesburg, can observe the birds feeding at "vulture restaurants" where they dine on carrion.

They can get close to a Cape-vulture breeding colony on an artificial cliff made from mesh, concrete and paint.

The Cape vulture, with its 8 1/2-foot wingspan, creamy feathers and golden eyes, is southern Africa's only native vulture.

South Africa has the largest population of breeding Cape vultures, with about 2,400 pairs, but their habitats are threatened by human encroachment. The species is listed as vulnerable, a classification below endangered.

Neighboring Namibia, where the bird is listed as critically endangered, is believed to have only about a dozen wild breeding pairs left.

This time of year, visitors to the Vulture Program can watch the birds dining and will see young birds on the verge of flight.

During the Southern Hemisphere spring, in September and October, visitors might glimpse a pair of adult birds brooding over an egg.

While the scene looks natural, it is the result of painstaking human intervention.

To ensure as many successful hatchings as possible, Ms. Wolter and Mr. Neser remove the eggs from adults pairs, which mate for life, soon after they are laid. They then replace the eggs with wooden dummies.

The real eggs spend most of the 54-day incubation period in a kitchen in an old farmhouse near the large bird enclosures.

When the chick is ready to hatch, signaled by the sound of tapping from within the egg, Ms. Wolter takes over the role of hen.

She has spent hours tapping and pulling at shells with surgical clamps. She uses a syringe to dampen the feathers of the emerging bird with a solution resembling a mother bird's saliva.

In the wild, when over-eager parents hatch their chicks too fast, the chicks can die of shock.

Once Ms. Wolter's chicks are hatched and deemed strong enough, they are returned to their parents.

The dummy egg is removed and the chick, under what looks like half an egg, is placed in the enclosure. The sound of its tapping stimulates the parents' instincts.

"They, theoretically, hatch it again," Ms. Wolter said.

"They don't recognize it as their own chick if they don't hatch it," said Mr. Neser, who has scars from ankle bites as souvenirs of his frequent visits to the breeding enclosure.

Both vulture parents share in building nests, hatching and feeding their young.

The conservationists must strike a delicate balance. If they wait too long to place the chick back with its real parents, the chick may become too dependent on humans to be released into the wild. If they move too soon, the chick may be too weak to survive with its parents.

Clumsy parents seeking to shelter chicks under their feet have crushed them. Some vulture parents are not fooled by the elaborate charade of wooden eggs and half shells. They often kill chicks they see as outsiders.

Still, a successful hatching seems easy compared to the larger challenges.

The long-term goal is to re-establish viable breeding colonies in Namibia.

However a strong threat is posed to the species there by cattle farmers who poison predators like jackals to protect their cattle.

A common method is to leave a poisoned horse carcass out for jackals. Vultures swoop down on the carcass. One poisoned horse "can wipe out an entire colony," Mr. Neser said.

Members of vulture colonies fly together, watching the ground but also watching one another. If one swoops for food, others follow.

"They have this pretty cool network going for locating food," Mr. Neser said.

Ms. Wolter and Mr. Neser meet regularly with Namibian farmers, trying to persuade them to stop using poison. Conservationists acknowledge the expense and labor costs of alternatives, such as bringing cattle into enclosures at night, when predators strike.

"The situation where we are is, no, it is not safe right now to reintroduce vultures into Namibia," Ms. Wolter said.

They plan to start slowly, reintroducing vultures into a Namibian nature reserve, though they realize it will be difficult to keep the birds from ranging far in search of food and perhaps finding poisoned offerings.

"They can easily travel [nearly 200 miles] to go and feed and come back in the same day," Mr. Neser said.

Vultures can fly into Namibia from South Africa. Poisoning is not as widespread in South Africa, but the country is more crowded and developed, creating other problems for the birds.

Good Samaritans regularly bring injured vultures to Ms. Wolter and Mr. Neser. Those that can be rehabilitated are released back into the wild.

Some South Africans believe the birds are clairvoyant and kill them to use their body parts for talismans.

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