Tanzania – October 2, 2020 – The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Tanzania and North Carolina Zoo’s vulture research and conservation work has been recognized through receipt of the 2020 Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) William G. Conway International Conservation Award of Significant Achievement. The award was given for a collaborative project between WCS, North Carolina Zoo and Tanzania wildlife authorities, which has been monitoring vultures across the Ruaha-Katavi landscape since 2013.
Vulture populations have drastically declined across Africa in recent years – primarily due to retaliatory poisoning of carnivores by pastoralists. While aiming to kill carnivores that have attacked their livestock, vultures often become secondary victims, with devastating consequences for vultures and the ecosystem. (For example, a 2018 poisoning incident outside Ruaha National Park resulted in 6 lions and 74 vultures found dead at the scene. Given some birds and animals likely died after leaving the site, the total count is almost certainly higher. See infographic.) Africa’s vultures are also threatened by hunting for use in traditional medicine, habitat and prey loss, and climate change.
The project area in southern Tanzania is a stronghold for five endangered vulture species (four of which are critically endangered). Learning about these birds’ movements, behaviour, population dynamics and threats is crucial to their conservation on both local and international levels. Small, solar powered satellite tags have been attached to over 20 birds to date, giving daily updates on their movements. These data have provided groundbreaking insight into the widespread ranging of vultures – one bird visited 8 countries in 9 months! They also reveal how reliant vultures are on corridors of natural habitat linking core protected areas. Information gleaned from the vultures’ movement behavior also feeds into WCS’s ecosystem monitoring, helping highlight areas of concern such as poisoning and poaching incidents. In addition to the tagging work, North Carolina Zoo and WCS has been conducting vulture surveys to monitor populations of these critically endangered species. In addition, the WCS plane is used to follow up on insight from the tags as well as help map roosting and nesting locations.
All this research enables WCS, North Carolina Zoo, and others to implement effective conservation of these birds, their environment and other wildlife within their ecosystem. The Tanzanian government – particularly the Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority (TAWA) and National Parks Authority (TANAPA) are using the data to improve protected area management, and the program has used it to inform community education and conservation efforts. Various awareness materials have been created to support this work at local and national levels.
Training is also key part of the project and North Carolina Zoo staff have been increasing the technical and practical skills relevant for vulture conservation of WCS and wildlife authority staff. WCS’s Msafiri Mgumba is pictured here assessing the age of a vulture by studying its wing colour, assisted by TAWA ranger Mashenene Iddi. In addition, the program has trained TANAPA and TAWA rangers in techniques for rapidly responding to and addressing vulture poisoning incidents.
North Carolina Zoo is also grateful to AZA for announcing a second conservation grant to help fund the project’s ongoing work and expansion of these efforts to Zambia. The vulture project is a valuable part of WCS’s broader efforts helping protect the Ruaha-Katavi landscape - one of the largest intact savannah ecosystems in Africa, home to East Africa’s largest elephant population and several other iconic and endangered species.
WCS’s RUAHA-KATAVI LANDSCAPE PROGRAM
Nearly three times the size of Switzerland, the Ruaha-Katavi landscape is one of the largest intact savannah ecosystems in Africa and has been identified as a priority conservation ‘Stronghold’ by WCS. The program’s focus is on supporting protected area authorities and working with communities to safeguard key wildlife corridors across the landscape. We improve natural resource management, diversify community income and ensure the effective protection of elephants and other priority species, all supported by scientific research and monitoring.