Recently, Love Africa team members Casey and Megan eagerly headed up to the Southern Drakensberg on an exciting content creation assignment focused on Vultures. They had been monitoring the weather forecasts closely, as the timing of the trip had to be just right. Vultures didn’t enjoy wet weather, after all…
With a backseat full of equipment, Casey and Megan were set to spend the weekend with our valued conservation partner, Wildlife ACT. They were going to get a first-hand account of their newest project: ‘The Southern Drakensberg Conservation Project’, which is dedicated to vulture conservation in the Southern Drakensberg region.
Setting the Scene
While the project had been in a testing phase for several months, it was now ready for a full-fledged launch and Love Africa was eager to lead the coverage. Megan, as Wildlife ACT’s Account Manager; and Casey, as Love Africa’s in-house photographer, were the perfect team to get stuck into and learn more about the crucial on-the-ground work being done by Wildlife ACT and its partners.
Casey and Megan arrived at the project house just before sundown and were greeted warmly by the Wildlife ACT team. The soft afternoon light provided a beautiful photographic opportunity to capture the volunteer house, known as ‘The Gatehouse’ and its surrounding mountains.
Essential Background on Vulture Conservation in the Southern Drakensberg
Wildlife ACT’s Southern Drakensberg Conservation Project focuses predominantly on the Maloti-Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site and its buffer zone, as this region is renowned for being a stronghold for several threatened and endangered species of Vulture. The protected area is vast, spanning over 240,000 hectares and stretching along the border of South Africa and Lesotho. Conservation efforts are also being made in non-protected areas, with several local landowners coming on-board to support Wildlife ACT’s work.
The Heritage Site is significant in that it is home to South Africa’s two cliff nesting species of vulture found in the area, namely the Bearded Vulture and Cape Vulture. The Bearded Vulture is of particular focus for Wildlife ACT, due to their critically endangered IUCN Redlist status and low estimation of 50 to 100 breeding pairs in South Africa and Lesotho.
Vultures are vital for our ecosystem, yet face an increasing number of threats, driving populations into concerningly low numbers. Projects like that of Wildlife ACT’s Southern Drakensberg Conservation Project are essential for population growth.
Some of the positive actions Wildlife ACT has implemented include: the monitoring of nesting sites, managing and maintaining safe vulture feeding sites, conducting a long-term remote camera trapping survey in the area, and responding to emergency events.
Prepared for Action
Now settled in and catching up with Priority Species Monitor, Phillip Swart, the Love Africa team was excited to participate in and document some vital conservation activities for endangered vultures. Everyone headed to bed early, anticipating a bustling few days ahead.
Vulture-Safe Feeding Sites and the Long Wait…
The Wildlife ACT team, together with partners and private landowners in the region, have pooled together to form vulture-safe feeding sites (also known as a vulture restaurant). The purpose of these sites is to assist in providing safe, uncontaminated carrion to the birds and to monitor the populations in the process.
Vultures tend to be a little kinder on the late riser than African Wild Dogs, but the team was up early regardless, determined not to miss out on the Cape Vulture action. The mornings had already started to frost resulting in a thick armor of jackets, beanies, scarves and gloves.
As we sat and waited for the vultures to arrive, we took the opportunity to ask Phillip some questions about these incredible birds. He explained more about their complex metabolic systems, the dangers they face, and their feeding habits. We watched the horizon with binoculars, through the hide view points, eyes strained for large gliding wings.
Finally, after half an hour or so of waiting, the first vulture could be seen gliding down towards the feeding site. Phillip explained that the others would be closeby, watching, and would soon descend in huge numbers. He was correct and soon we were hurriedly trying to keep up the number count of iconic birds gathered in front of the hide. Their curious heads popped out of the long grass like telescopes, waiting for the bravest among them to make the first move.
We sat at the edge of the hide benches, sipping our coffee tentatively in fear of missing the first vulture to feed. When it happened, it was quick and chaotic. They dug in hurriedly and competitively as we watched on. This was what we had come to see and the moment certainly didn’t disappoint!
The fresh start was worth it – we were rewarded with incredible sightings of Black-backed jackals and Cape Vultures, as well as several interesting bird species on the road to and from the vulture-safe feeding site.
Camera Trap Surveys
Another activity Love Africa was able to join in was the changing of camera trap batteries, memory cards and uploading of pictures. This project activity is something that any lover of hiking and birding will love, as it allows for access to beautiful and remote locations. Camera trap images reveal just how alive the paths are when no one is around. The team was blown away by the diverse range of wildlife, from otters and porcupines to servals and eland.
Coffee for a Cause
Between the jam-packed itinerary, the team was able to stop by Balam River Deck and check out one of the new favourite local coffee spots. This was significant because the coffee being sold at the cafe is Wildlife ACT’s own ‘Soaring Wild’ coffee, distributed by The Wild Collection. Not only did Balam have a beautiful view, but each cup of coffee also went towards the cause our team was there to document. So naturally, a few were enjoyed by the team!
Not only did this time at Wildlife ACT’s Southern Drakensberg Conservation Project offer an incredible insight into vulture conservation work; it also offered our team a whole new perspective on an area we’ve traversed many times. Wildlife ACT introduced us to new roads and landmarks and showed us camera trap images of animals we were overjoyed to see were still in abundance.
“There is no better feeling than seeing the important work we’re supporting from a marketing position in-person, and better yet, having the chance to participate and contribute. The people we work with, the places we’re able to see, and the experiences we are afforded to be part of are so incredibly fulfilling. Enjoying that cup of coffee for vulture conservation with good people doing good work brought all the hard behind-the-scenes work into perspective. This is why we do what we do.” – Megan Whittington, Love Africa Account Manager.
We were treated to first-hand sightings of Grey Crowned Cranes, Cape Vultures, an African Clawless Otter and Black-Backed Jackals. We may have missed the Bearded Vultures this time, but will be sure to keep an eye out for them during winter visits!