Imagine the moment a bird flaps its wings for the very first time and glides away into freedom. AgriOrbit was recently privileged to witness such a moment and found it amazing indeed.

History was made when a group of 35 vultures were released into the wild in the Nooitgedacht Nature reserve in the Magaliesburg area. “What makes this release so significant,” said Kerri Wolter of Vulpro, “is that it is the biggest release yet, not only in South Africa, but globally.” What further makes it significant is that all the birds were fitted with tracking devices in order for Vulpro to track the success of the mission. The third very significant factor is that the group of birds included both rehabilitated and captive-bred birds. “This means that we are putting back into the Magaliesburg that which has been lost over the past few years.”

The group included 32 Cape vultures, two white-backed vultures and one lappet-faced vulture.

“Remember,” said Kerri, “for many of these birds this will be their maiden flight.”

An existing wild vulture colony has already claimed the reserve as their home. “This colony became extinct in the late -1960s, but in 1991 the first Cape vulture pair bred here again. There are now 150 breeding pairs in the colony. The successful rebuilding of the colony can mostly be attributed to the fact that it had the land owners’ support. They provided a safe regular supply of food, which is what brought many of the birds back.”

Other than the lack of safe food, another threat to vultures is power line executions and collisions. This threat also has to be addressed. “We collaborate with Eskom and this is actually very exciting because recently our partnership with Eskom has grown. They went out of their way to mitigate the power lines in the vicinity of the colony.”

The partnership has been crucial to the success of the project and will be vital to the long-term success of vulture conservation. “If we can work together towards the same goal, we can achieve success. We need the support of land owners, companies such as Eskom and other role-players.” Vulpro is now also working with the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa and some of the captive-bred birds released, were from zoos. “This shows how zoos can collaborate and become involved in conservation.”

Preparing the birds

The birds were kept in a large enclosure on the release site for six months prior to their release. “Thank you to all the volunteers who have been up here every day during those six months checking on the birds, and making sure they are safe and ready.”

Kerri explains that, as vultures rely on thermals and wind currents for flight, not much has to be done before release to prepare them for flight. “It is important to keep them in a big enclosure. The enclosure here has two high perches and they need to be able to fly up to the high perch and then to the next perch. However, the enclosure must not be too big as, when they pick up speed in flight, they could fly into the enclosure and break their necks. That is why the ends of the enclosure have shade netting so that they can see where it ends.”

She explains that the reason the birds were kept in an enclosure at the release site for six months, is that they want them to remain in Nooitgedacht and join the existing wild colony. “In a perfect world we would want these birds to literally just join the wild colony, sit on the ledges and make babies.  We are only successful once these birds produce their offspring in the wild.”

“Once we open the gates, we have no idea what to expect,” Kerri said before the release. “Getting them to take flight is tricky, as you have to encourage them to leave the enclosure but should not scare them. We will create movement and noise from the back, outside the enclosure, in an attempt to encourage them to fly out. We want to encourage them rather than force them to fly, and prevent them from becoming flushed, and eventually grounded.”

The future of vulture conservation

AgriOrbit was privileged to witness the future of vulture conservation. “Many of the vulture species have been uplisted to the highest protection a species can get. Cape vultures have been uplisted to endangered status, the white-backed vulture to critically endangered status and lappet-faced vultures to endangered status.

“The chance of losing our vultures in our lifetime is very real. What we are doing here today is a way to prevent this from happening. If we can work together for a common goal with land owners and companies such as Eskom to save these birds, we can make a difference. I believe this is the future of vulture conservation,” Kerri concluded.

Click here to read more about Vulpro.

Enjoy the moment of release in this video. Also see what Kerri had to say after the release:

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