Zambia is home to 8 vulture species; 4 species are critically endangered, 2 endangered, 1 is vulnerable and 1 is of least concern according to the IUCN Red List of threatened species. As is the case with the rest of Africa, Zambia’s vulture populations have suffered a human-induced population decline of up to 98% in some species such as the White-headed (Trigonoceps occipitalis) and White-backed Vultures (Gyps africanus).
With the rising number of vulture deaths due to various threats – the primary reason being poisoning, both intentional and unintentional poisoning, the concept of Vulture Safe Zones (VSZs) plays a vital role in the long-term survival of vultures. The idea behind the creation of the Vulture Safe Zones (VSZ) is to reduce vulture deaths resulting from poisoning by creating poison-free environments for vultures. In areas where there are existing populations of vultures, concerted efforts are made to propagate this initiative by raising awareness to save their populations. VSZs provide safe feeding, drinking, and roosting sites for vultures with no risk of poisoning and persecution. These areas could be privately owned land, game reserves game management areas, or livestock farms.
In 2017, BirdWatch Zambia pioneered the VSZ initiative in Africa, using lessons learned from the catastrophic decline of vultures and the resulting negative impact in India. This initiative was started with 3 farms in Chisamba – Central Zambia – and has now expanded to a total of 8 VSZs across the country covering an area of approximately 474,700ha. VSZs are a boost in protecting vulture populations and are a critical strategy in the long-term survival of vultures across the country. These areas are set up in partnership with farm owners, with financial support from the ISDELL Family Foundation and National Geographic Society. Through this initiative, BWZ has been able to facilitate consistent research on vultures and several other bird species within the sites. Therefore, as well as being safe havens for vultures, VSZ have become important outposts for monitoring vulture populations outside of protected areas.
As an activity within the Vulture Safe Zones (VSZs) initiative, the planting of native tree species is undertaken by BWZ to mitigate the loss of trees as vulture perch and defecate on them. As a result of this, the trees tend to lose their leaves and branches and die off eventually. This is because the faecal matter of vultures is highly acidic. Other forms of habitat degradation are human-induced due to uncontrolled cutting down of trees and poor farming techniques, both inside and around the VSZs. BWZ with its partners aims at improving the conditions making them more bird favourable through tree planting. The Red Mahogany, locally known as ‘mululu’ is a fast-growing tree which quickly brings back cover to a degraded area is an example of native trees BWZ has provided to farmers under the VSZ initiative.
Apart from being beneficial to vultures, the mululu is used by different bird species for feeding, shade, and roosting. The Zambian Barbets for example, an endemic bird to Zambia that nests/roosts in the Fig trees spend time away from their cavities perched and sourcing their food from different trees including the ‘mululu’. Other trees that we consider planting for the same purpose within south-central Zambia are Natal Mahogany(‘musikili’), Fig trees (‘mukuyu’) and the White Acacia(‘musangu’). As long as the vegetation on these farms supports species’ population of iconic birds such as the vultures and remains suitable for endemic birds such as the Zambian Barbet and several other species in the long term, it is cardinal to ‘‘Insure’’ this vegetation by engaging in tree planting activities of appropriate species.
If you have a farm or game ranch owner with large trees, attracting vultures, a section which doesn’t have heavy human traffic and you are keen to be part of this initiative please contact the office (firstname.lastname@example.org) and become a part of people fighting to save Africa’s vultures.