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Plans in place to protect vultures

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In December 2017, the SA Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) published an aeronautical information circular in this respect

FEAST: A colony of vultures is seen feeding on a carcass near Kimberley. Measures have been put in place to protect the local vulture population from increased aerial activity during Armed Forces Day. Picture: Beryl Wilson

MEASURES have been put in place to protect Kimberley’s vulture population from the increased aerial activity associated with Armed Forces Day, which is set to take place in the city next week, when more than 40 SANDF aircraft will be participating in an aerial display.

More than 6 000 military personnel and more than 700 military vehicles, including aircraft and specialised and operational vehicles, have already started “infiltrating” the city in preparation for the Armed Forces Day parade, set to take place in Kimberley on February 21, when the president of South Africa and Commander-in-Chief of the SANDF is also expected to be in attendance.

It is still unclear who the delegate in this position will be by next week.

Meanwhile, Beryl Wilson, a zoologist from the McGregor Museum, yesterday raised concern about the increased aerial activity associated with the Armed Forces Day and the run-up to the event, and the effect it would have on the vulture population of Kimberley.

“The air force will be flying as many as 43 aircraft at low levels above the city during their aerial displays, some of which will be kept in holding patterns near to Kimberley while awaiting their flyby slots.

“Working in conjunction with the organisers and stakeholders of this impressive event, information has been shared to ensure that aircraft and the vultures don’t spend too much time sharing communal airspace.

“Attempts will be made to keep the vultures grounded, using food strategically placed at feeding sites during peak flying periods, while pilots have been briefed as to potentially sensitive areas to avoid. All parties concerned will also be on high alert for signs of increased bird activity in the air.

“In this way, it is hoped that the people of Kimberley can enjoy what is sure to a be spectacular event whilst keeping the skies shared by aircraft and vultures safe for all involved,” Wilson said yesterday.

Kimberley and surrounding areas boast several large breeding colonies of the critically endangered white-backed vulture and they are often sighted in large clusters soaring in thermals above the city.

The most widespread species on the African continent, this species has recently seen its numbers decline rapidly in southern Africa, mostly due to mass poisoning events, accidents involving power line structures, drowning in farm reservoirs and poaching for the traditional medicine trade.

Wilson said that these threats, coupled with continuously changing habitats and farming practices, now had the species facing extinction in our region within five to eight years.

“Vultures are the only true scavengers in the wild and provide vital ecosystem services by clearing the veld of dead animals and preventing the spread of diseases. Their vital importance has now been recognised beyond conservation circles. However, vultures weigh from six to 12 kilograms, with a wingspan of up to 2.5 metres. This poses a formidable risk to any aircraft sharing the skies with these birds,” Wilson said.

In December 2017, the SA Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) published an aeronautical information circular in this respect. Vulture researchers throughout South Africa had raised concerns about the hazards presented by aircraft flying through areas where colonies are based.

Wilson stated that the aircraft involved could not only unduly disturb the birds but that they were also at increased risk of collisions with these large birds.

“The very first record of a collision with a vulture was recorded in Kimberley during WWII when a Cape vulture was struck by an Oxford. The bird died in the incident, but the aircraft and its two-man crew made it safely back to the ground although the plane was extensively damaged.

“Other mid-air collisions have not been as fortunate and due to these associated risks the CAA issued a circular listing nationwide sensitive vulture sites and included precautionary warning measures for pilots to exercise caution when operating within a one nautical mile radius of a vulture feeding area or the outskirts of a specified colony,” Wilson concluded.