Vulture shock: powerlines fry one rare bird a day
Despite plans to curb the death toll, experts fear it might be too late to reverse the trend
The massive wingspans that allow vultures to fly to great heights and to soar effortlessly over great distances are proving to be the bird’s fatal liability in a modern landscape.
Experts say the wingspan of Cape vultures, which is about 2.5m, is wide enough to bridge the gap between the high-voltage electrical terminals on Eskom power pylons that now fry at least 10 of these birds every month.
That might not sound like a big number, but it is a cause for alarm when there are believed to be only 4,200 breeding pairs left in Southern Africa.
And now the monthly toll of vultures killed or maimed by powerline collisions and electrocution has shot up to at least 28 during April – one of these rare birds killed almost every day – according to the vulture conservation group Vulpro.Vulpro founder Kerri Wolter said most of the latest casualties were Cape vultures, electrocuted in the Eastern Cape and North West.
“The tragedy of this latest unacceptably high tally is that it is possible to (safety) proof powerlines to prevent these mortalities from happening.”
Wolter, a former manager of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s vulture study group, has urged Eskom to take action urgently to curb the death toll among these endangered carrion birds that are only found in Southern Africa.
“They are slow-breeding, reach maturity between five and seven years of age and only lay one egg a year. As the only endemic vulture species to Southern Africa, they have already become extinct as a breeding species in Namibia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland.”Vultures travel vast distances in search of food, water and breeding sites, and often use powerline structures to roost on because these offer an elevated vantage point from where they can easily lift off and climb thermals.However, electrocution or collisions with powerlines are acknowledged as one of the major causes of vulture deaths, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).The union’s latest Red List of Threatened Species report notes that apart from powerline killings, vultures have also become more vulnerable because of a drop in the number of wild and domestic animal carcasses to feed on. They are also poisoned or deliberately hunted for their body parts for traditional medicine.
“At current harvest levels, the populations of this species in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho could become locally extinct within 44-53 years,” says the IUCN, noting that if white-backed vultures are also heavily depleted for traditional medicine, hunting pressure on Cape vultures could cause a population collapse much sooner.
“The unsafe electricity grid should be seen as a priority issue for the survival, in particular, of the endemic Cape vulture,” Wolter said.She acknowledged that it would be costly to install bird-friendly pylons, while fitting insulating sleeves to existing pylons required regular maintenance.
“Eskom is working on a proactive approach but we are extremely worried that, given the time delay in making powerlines and powerline structures safe, it could be too late in many parts to rectify and reverse the current downward trend.”
Eskom didn't respond to queries on measures it was taking to reduce the vulture death toll.