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Attaching an Argos transmitter to a vulture in Tanzania. 

On the Wings of a White-backed Vulture

Story provided by Corinne J. Kendall, PhD

Associate Curator of Conservation and Research

North Carolina Zoo

Africa’s vultures are in trouble, but just a few years ago little was known about the status of vultures in southern Tanzania. To address this dearth of information, Wildlife Conservation Society and North Carolina Zoo partnered with Tanzania National Parks to begin a monitoring program for vultures in Ruaha and Katavi National Parks in southern Tanzania. Ruaha National Park is enormous. At over 20,000 sq km, it is one of the largest parks in Africa. But White-backed vultures are known to range widely (over 100,000 sq km) and it wasn’t clear how the population might be using this landscape. Monitoring can’t be effective without a sense of the range of a given population.


To address this issue, an understanding of vulture movement would be critical. Starting in 2015, scientists from Wildlife Conservation Society and North Carolina Zoo, began tagging White-backed vultures to better understand how they use the landscape and to detect potential threats to vultures in this ecosystem. Poisoning remains as one of the greatest threats to vultures in Africa. When pastoralists put pesticides on predated livestock (cows or goats killed by lions or hyenas), carnivores can be affected but the toll on vultures can be substantial. Over a hundred birds can be killed at a single poisoned cow carcass. Death of tagged birds as well as a large poisoning event in May 2016 indicated that poisoning was an issue around Ruaha National Park, though the scale of the problem appears to be less than in other parts of East Africa.


The bigger question though was would vultures from Ruaha National Park remain in this single large protected area and some of the surrounding game reserves or would they travel to Katavi National Park over 300 km away. With 9 White-backed vultures now tagged with solar-powered Argos transmitters, it has been possible to assess their ranging behavior in southern Tanzania. Indeed, several individuals have moved between Ruaha and Katavi National Park. More impressive still has been the longer range movement of a single juvenile vulture who not only left Ruaha National Park, but has exceeded all our expectations with a journey all the way to South Africa (over 3,000 km away).

Attaching an Argos transmitter to a vulture in Tanzania. 

(image to the left)

The bottom left map shows the borders of several African countries with a blue box (the large map) and a red box (the smaller map in the upper right corner). 

The blue box covers Tanzania in the north and Zambia to the southwest. Other bordering countries include Rwanda and Burundi to the northwest and Malawi to the south. (The blue boxed mapping area makes up most of the image on the left.) This map demonstrates the movements of the tagged vultures.

The smaller red box shows the fine-scale movement of a single bird (Bird 113) traveling well outside the surrounding game reserves.  

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