Elephants and Vultures – It’s Complicated

Written by Robin Cook

Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb

The white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) is a critically endangered species in the Greater Kruger National Park (Greater KNP), with adults being threatened by a variety of factors such as poisonings, electrocutions, muti-trade and habitat loss. These factors place great strain on an already decreasing population. However, as white-backed vultures nest at the top of big trees, it is also a possibility that impact by African elephant (Loxodonta africana) on big tree species may affect vulture nesting success. Therefore, Elephants Alive have been monitoring elephant impact on vulture nesting trees since 2008. Our surveys take place across the Associated Private Nature Reserves of the Greater KNP, with this year being the first year that Thornybush Private Nature Reserve has been included in the survey. This long-term survey allows us to gain an understanding of the size class and species of trees for which vultures select, the elephant impact levels on these trees, as well as the survival rates of the trees and vulture nests. And what do we find? A complex relationship. White-backed vultures nest in a variety of tree species, some which are more vulnerable to elephant impact than others. Vulture nests are also vulnerable to heavy winds, which have frequented the Greater KNP in recent months. Therefore, by assessing a variety of habitat-types and tree species across the Greater KNP, we are gaining a clearer understanding of where elephant impact may be a concern and where it may not be. This information is then fed back to reserve management to aid in the conservation of vultures and their nesting trees.

Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb

We are very grateful to all reserve management for granting us permission to continue with this survey, as well as to Spencer and Cheryl Morrison, Aida Ettayeb, Jessica Wilmot and Hiral Naik who helped in the field during the 2019 survey. Cheryl Morrison is also thanked for measuring tree size dimensions on completion of the field work. A special word of thank to Sieglinde Rode who started this study with Dr. Michelle Henley as part of her MSc in 2008 and who has sadly passed away. We would also like to thank Johna Turner for many years of offering protection to field assistants in the past.

Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb
Photo credit: Aida Ettayeb

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