BirdLife South Africa and BirdLife International are very concerned that the proposed development of a wind farm at Letseng in Lesotho could have severe impacts on the already declining populations of Cape Vultures and Lammergeiers. South Africa and Lesotho share the responsibility of safeguarding the populations of Lammergeiers and Cape Vultures in the Lesotho Highlands and the surrounding escarpment of South Africa.
PowerNET Developments (Pty) Ltd propose to erect 42 wind turbines (each with a capacity of 850 kW) near Letšeng-La-Terae, on the north-eastern escarpment of the Drakensberg. The environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the proposed Letseng Wind Farm is in its final stages of completion. The avifaunal specialist report, compiled by well-respected ornithologist Dr Andrew Jenkins, indicates that even with mitigation, the anticipated impacts of the project on highly unique and sensitive avifauna will be of high to very high negative significance, rendering the project unsustainable.
While wind energy is fairly new to southern Africa, poorly located wind turbines elsewhere in the world have had significant impacts on bird populations. Impacts include loss of habitat, disturbance and mortality through collisions with the turbine blades. In Smøla, Norway, for example, wind farms caused the local population of White-tailed Eagles (also known as Sea Eagles) to plunge by 95% – reducing the number from 19 eagle pairs to only one pair.
Such devastating impacts have not occurred at all wind farms. “The considered location of wind farms is the key to ensuring that impacts on birds are kept to a minimum”, says Samantha Ralston, Birds and Renewable Energy Manager for BirdLife South Africa. Among other things, turbines should be kept well away from areas frequently used by collision-prone birds such as large-bodied raptors.
Collision-prone vultures cannot observe political boundaries
Vultures play an important ecological, economic, cultural and aesthetic role. They are scavengers and by disposing of waste and carcasses they help control populations of other disease-carrying scavengers and pests. In this way they help protect human health, as well as that of domesticated animals and wildlife.
Unfortunately, vultures appear to be particularly prone to colliding with the turbine blades. High collision rates have been observed in Griffon Vultures at wind farms in Europe, most notably in Tarifa, Spain. The Griffon Vulture is a close relative of the Cape Vulture. A recent study in Tarifa, Spain, estimated that 0.22 vulture deaths occurred per turbine per year. This was reduced by approximately half with the introduction of mitigation, but even with mitigation one can expect that for every 10 turbines at least one vulture will be killed every year.
The proposed Letseng wind farm is located in habitat that is critical for both Lammergeier and Cape Vulture, both threatened species. Lammergeier is listed as regionally Endangered and Cape Vulture as Vulnerable in South Africa. Birds do not observe political boundaries and the populations of both species span South Africa and Lesotho. A further decline of birds in Lesotho, will severely impact the viability and survival rates of the vultures in South Africa. Using population models, scientists have demonstrated that even a small increase in adult mortality could cause the rapid decline and even local extinction of these long-lived, slow-breeding birds. “BirdLife South Africa has learnt from its partners in Europe and North America that incorrectly located wind farms can cause massive mortalities of vultures and eagles”, says Mark Anderson, CEO of BirdLife South Africa. “For this reason, we will strongly oppose any wind farm developments which we believe will result in significant impacts on Lammergeier, Cape Vulture and other threatened South African birds”, he added.
Responsible sustainable development must be consultative
BirdLife South Africa fully recognises the need to move towards generating clean energy and supports the responsible development of a renewable energy infrastructure in southern Africa. BirdLife South Africa therefore encourages wind farm developers to work with them to help identify suitable sites for wind energy to minimise the impact on birds and the environment while delivering lasting sustainable development. For example, prior to siting a wind farm, a Strategic Environmental Assessment should be undertaken as this enables avoidance of areas that are known to be environmentally sensitive.
Dr Julius Arinaitwe, BirdLife International’s Regional Director for Africa says development is vital, but must progress in an environmentally sensitive manner. “Development is underpinned by healthy ecosystems and the biodiversity therein. The choices we make now must not negatively affect Africa’s ability to develop in future”, he said.
BirdLife South Africa and BirdLife International are calling on PowerNET Developments (Pty) Ltd to voluntarily withdraw the EIA application. BirdLife South Africa is also encouraging the public and partners to comment on the EIA report. Further information can be obtained from Samantha Ralston (at email@example.com or 083-6733948).
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