The whirling blades of more than 4 000 wind turbines in the Lesotho Highlands could wipe out Southern Africa’s last stronghold of the endangered Bearded Vulture and degrade the neighbouring World Heritage Site in SA.
These are some of the fears of bird experts and conservation officials over the recent push to build wind farms in Lesotho to supply Eskom’s SA customers with “green” and climate-friendly electricity.
Birdlife SA and avian scientists warn that plans to generate 6 000MW of wind electricity could have “devastating” and “potentially catastrophic” results for the Bearded Vulture, including possible extinction in the southern hemisphere.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, legal custodian of the Ukhahlamba- Drakensberg World Heritage Site, is also worried that a proliferation of wind farms close to the borderline could degrade the wild landscape values of the park and draw global criticism.
Already there are plans for a 150MW wind turbine farm in the vicinity of the Royal Natal National Park’s Amphitheatre, one of the most iconic landmarks in SA.
Vulture experts estimate that there are only 100 remaining breeding pairs of Bearded Vulture south of the Equator,
Tconcentrated in the high-lying areas of Lesotho, KZN, Free State and Eastern Cape.
Though some of these birds still survive in Ethiopia and parts of East Africa, the Maloti-Drakensberg area has the only viable population in the southern hemisphere.
David Allan, the Durban Natural Science Museum curator of birds, said the project also posed a significant threat to the future of the Cape Vulture, classified as vulnerable in the Eskom Red Data Book of Birds. Other vulnerable species included Verraux’s Eagle, Black Stork and Southern Bald Ibis.
Eskom, the intended recipient of the Lesotho wind power, said it was aware of the plan but that it had not signed any agreement to purchase the electricity.
Nevertheless, Birdlife SA chief executive Mark Anderson has written to Energy Minister Dipuo Peters calling for an urgent meeting of bird experts and government officials to discuss the impact on the region’s birdlife before SA commits to buying any wind energy from Lesotho.
“A wind energy project on the scale proposed for the Lesotho Highlands would almost certainly be determined as fatally flawed under the South African EIA system, purely on the grounds of its anticipated impacts on vultures,” he said. Peters had not responded. The largest project so far is from Breeze Power, a consortium 25 percent owned by the Lesotho government and 75 percent by South African, Chinese and other foreign investors. It hopes to generate 6 000MW of wind power before 2021.
Breeze Power quietly launched its first EIA last year, but the environmental consultants’ contract was terminated, with neither Breeze nor the consultants explaining why the process stalled.
Other sources speculate that Breeze was dismayed by strong recommendations made against a wind farm near the Oxbow Plateau, in the vicinity of the Amphitheatre.
Breeze Power director Moss Leoka told The Mercury that the EIA would resume shortly with new consultants and there were plans to mitigate the impacts of the Oxbow farm by shifting it about 15km southwards. There were also plans for a captive-breeding project for Bearded Vultures to compensate for those killed in the Lesotho turbines.
“We are looking at breeding and releasing them faster than they are dying,” said Leoka.
Turbine blades and towers could also be painted to make them more visible to birds.
But bird experts and Ezemvelo remain dubious about the viability of captive breeding plans or attempts to make turbines more visible. Recent research by University of Birmingham scientists suggest that birds live in a different visual world to humans.
In simple terms, making turbines more conspicuous to human eyes was unlikely to solve the problems. While vultures had very keen eyesight they had adapted to looking down and to the side while searching for food – not forward, looking for obstacles, said research leader Prof Graham Martin.
Ezemvelo experts Ian Rushworth and Sonja Krüger, who studied Bearded and Cape Vulture movements in the MalotiDrakensberg mountains with satellite trackers, say the population level of both species was already dropping by about 1% a year from poaching, poisoning and other threats.
Based on computer modelling studies, they estimated that just 200 turbines would push the rate of decline to about 5% a year for both species. Breeze Power plans translated to about 4 000 turbine towers.
“The models (200 towers only) predict a devastating impact from wind farms, with a high probability of both populations going extinct. So-called ‘clean’ energy is not synonymous with ‘green’ energy,” Rushworth and Krüger told the Pan African Vulture Summit in Kenya earlier this year.
Phillip Hockey, the director of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town and co-author of the birding bible, Roberts Birds of Southern Africa, has also spoken out strongly against the recent rush to build wind farms.
“Environmental experts in SA are being asked to comment on the likely impact of wind farms on a massive and immediate scale. What we are seeing today is something akin to the gold rush of the 19th Century, but on a much, much greater scale. SA has no greater environmental challenge in its history than is posed by these cumulative wind farm proposals,” he argued.
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