Great Limpopo TFCA, Zinave National Park

Shaping southern Africa’s greatest sanctuary for transfrontier vultures

White-backed vultures

In an innovative partnership with Birdlife South Africa, Peace Park Foundation’s progress in restoring Zinave National Park shows how nature nurtures vultures when given a chance.

Ask any global citizen – from any rural or urban part of the world – what they value highly in their lives and homes: security and resources. The freedom to exist in a safe, abundant space. This survival drive and right is common to all species, but those with a history of acute persecution need protecting and providing for more than most, and now more than ever.

This reality is making for a powerful match between a famously misunderstood bird and one of Mozambique’s lesser known but flourishing wild spaces. Zinave National Park, that owns precious shares in the greater space of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTFCA), has been a biodiversity work-in-progress and inspiration since 2016 when Mozambique’s National Administration for Conservation Areas and Peace Parks’ long-term agreement to co-manage the
408 000 ha open system, came about. So began an intensive programme to operationally rebuild and ecologically restore the park. Following transformative infrastructure, conservation management and law enforcement enhancements, more than 2 300 game animals representing 14 different species were reintroduced into the park. And now it is ready to safely embrace vultures, numbering at least 2 endangered species – hopefully more in time.

To do so effectively, Zinave has become a Vulture Safe Zone (VSZ) – now the largest of its kind in southern Africa. This collaborative project between Peace Parks and BirdLife South Africa is the latest adventure for an emerging park in fulfilling its rich potential; an especially challenging and exciting opportunity for a number of reasons.

The expansive and well-protected Zinave National Park provides a healthy habitat for scavengers, predators and their prey to co-exist.

Persecuted and underestimated

As raptors go, vultures have had a seriously bad rap. Branded bottom-feeders, poachers’ whistleblowers and totems of muthi power, they have been intentionally used and abused, and exposed to incidental risk. Each of the nine species existing across southern Africa have suffered to varying degrees. Of these, four are considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN’s Red List and BirdLife International, but no species is secure: the net loss is deeply significant. Because removing vultures from the picture, as humans have been with fierce consistency, leaves a debt of ‘ecosystem services’ that we can’t afford.

In short, if vultures disappeared from the landscape, more than the mighty scavengers would fall.

Unprocessed, turned rotting meat would fall prey to disease-causing agents, becoming a serious health risk to other animals as well as to humans.

Compounding the consequences of this, the absence of vultures could see the guild of scavenging mammals, such as jackal and feral dogs, exploit the new abundance of carrion, proliferate and further amplify disease risk. The viruses they transmit could bust populations of certain endangered species, and impact humans too. These checks and balances, or ‘nature contributions’, will be impossible or enormously costly to replace once they are lost.

White backed vultures on a buffalo carcass.

Wild spaces are fed by food webs of unimaginable complexity. Ecosystems maintain equilibrium because of nutrients traveling back and forth from one state to another – these elements and their momentum play the most vital role in keeping the ecosystem functioning. This process is known as nutrient cycling and it is fundamental in powering up the parks and every dependent species. The ‘nutrient potential’ of bodies on the ground can’t be accessed without the broader scavenger system in place. 

Predators have always held a prominent – iconic – place in the food hierarchy. Scavengers less so, with lowly detritivores the lowest of the low. Throughout southern African habitats, vultures sweep into the feeding system’s pecking order and work it uniquely – but never in isolation.

The subtleties of these interactions between elements – and species – are so ingenious that they’re often overlooked and undervalued. Scavengers are opportunists all-round – they exploit carrion, and each other, so conserving one (or not) naturally impacts another.

Case in point, vultures have a reciprocal relationship with hyenas: not a close symbiotic association, and certainly not friends, but scavengers with mutual benefits. Bone-crushing, a characteristic feeding behaviour of hyenas, feeds directly into vultures’ systems – making carcasses more accessible, therefore nutrients more available. Teeth and jaws beat beaks when it comes to making the first move on a kill: tearing through tough skin to expose the buffet but also breaking whole bones into fragments fit for a raptor designed to do things slightly differently.  A good thing then, that just two years ago, Peace Parks and ANAC successfully brought back hyena to the Zinave after decades of absence, with cubs added to the troop recently. A vulture exposé recently published in the Journal of Animal Ecology revealed how these dynamics play out in the hyenas’ favour in return: how ground-based scavengers use soaring birds of prey as their eyes in the sky to find their next dining spot. The study revealed that both jackals and hyenas were spying on vultures, gaining valuable information about carrion resources: how to find the bigger spoils, faster. Impressively, they could differentiate between vultures, signaling relatively large dead animals, and eagles, which look similar but prefer smaller prey.

Each to their niche, which makes a powerful case for an abundance of different species in any given space.  

White headed vulture. Photo: Chris van Rooyen

Logically these vital gains, on all sides, grow in step with biological diversity. The incoming vultures stand to benefit from all the hard restoration and rewilding work, whilst the park’s pre-existing wildlife will reap rewards from vultures in return.

Paving the way to safety and beyond

In essence, the value of any wild space is far more than the sum of its parts. With vultures alone being so precious to an ecosystem, this gives impressive context to Zinave’s net biodiversity worth and valuable role it has to play as part of something even greater.

The philosophy sitting right at the heart of Peace Parks Foundation, and the partners it is fortunate to collaborate with, is essentially one of ‘breathing space’. Working to connect – reconnect, rewild – Africa’s wilderness areas, seeing frontiers as gateways as opposed to barriers to nature. Transfrontier Conservation Areas seek to replace disparity and instability, amongst wildlife and people, with harmony; by definition, it is a process which goes with the flow – of expanded ecosystems and unconstrained species.

Wildlife corridors, on the ground and in the air, exemplify this need for flow, and data collected by the Endangered Wildlife Trust on vulture movements proves it: a vital identifiable flight path from Kruger National Park in South Africa, into Zinave across the GLTFCA.

The White-backed Vulture and the White-headed Vulture, both listed as ‘critically endangered’, are the two best-known species to run this gauntlet. Within 2 days individuals can traverse a cross-border route to Mozambique that also includes stopovers in Zululand and Zambia, flying over a heavily fragmented landscape. This is a notable detail since, to protect vultures urgently, effective initiatives must cover not only great spaces, parks and reserves but also pockets of privately-owned land. With multiple landowners under their flight path, this doesn’t make negotiations, monitoring or impact control – all core facets of VSZs – straightforward.

The vast flight corridor is littered with threats such as targeted poisoning, secondary poisoning (via carcasses of assumed livestock predators killed by illegally laced meat) and death by poachers – for ‘belief-use’ body parts and to eliminate the tell posed by vultures flocking to poaching sites.

Faced with so many geographical and criminal challenges, BirdLife’s task is as expansive as the vultures’ range itself, particularly given its more inaccessible areas. The recovery of sick and injured birds is compromised by immense challenges of covering the ground, which lends significance to the support of conservation allies, such as Peace Parks Foundation that not only operates in, but also along, the other safe havens and corridors on the flightpath into Zinave.

This partnership is especially central to the overarching concept of VSZs – which in theory and reality must both complement and amplify national and international efforts to reduce risk and impact, and thereby stabilise – revitalise – existing vulture populations. It is a formal partnership that extends to protecting and strengthening Key Biodiversity Areas, collaborating on policy issues, and developing birding tourism routes, which all collectively serve to increase the protection of bird species within transfrontier conservation areas across southern Africa.

With a scarcity of data on vulture numbers and dynamics across the GLTFCA to date, this new collaboration is a precious chance to observe, and measure, how the protection of crucial raptors in safe havens like Zinave can contribute to healthy populations and balanced ecosystems across the region.

Putting the ‘Safe’ into a Vulture Safe Zone

There are 15 current criteria having to be met in order to qualify as a VSZ. Of primary importance is the banning of illegal use of poison in any way that infiltrates vulture food webs, accompanied by training in poison response and protocol amongst staff.  Added to this is increased awareness of monitoring and protective measures around power lines to prevent electrocution.

Then there’s feeding (supplementary) and breeding (undisturbed), and fitting water reservoirs with escape ladders to prevent birds from drowning. Ensuring that lead-free ammunition is used (or removing lead poison from carcasses) to cull or hunt game or livestock and, as an ongoing effort, monitoring of populations and reporting of injuries and mortalities. The latter is known to be a particular challenge, but it is a vital condition for vulture safety, and one which BirdLife is determined to enable all along the vulture ‘flyway’.

Certain VSZ conditions aren’t entirely relevant to the park: the threat of water troughs or power lines for example. And there is no commercial hunting in Zinave, although lead ammunition is used for game management and law enforcement purposes.

In terms of fulfilling other criteria, Zinave is on top of their game, and the training of staff and supporting of standards is making great progress with the invaluable help and expertise of the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Zinave National Park is already a safe haven for countless bird species.

The commitment to protect such a boundless species is a complex and overwhelming but, above all, an exciting big picture for these tragically underestimated raptors. It is more than just a story of birds, or the cycle of nutrients, or the reputation of an emerging park. It’s about the safety of a uniquely special place which sits right at the heart of a much broader circle of life.

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