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Wind power threat to vultures

A new wind power project in the mountains of Lesotho could decimate two threatened vulture species in southern Africa, the bird conservation group Birdlife International has warned.

A Birdlife statement said the project to build dozens of large wind turbines could have “severe impacts”, possibly leading to regional extinction of globally significant populations of the Bearded and Cape vultures in both Lesotho and South Africa.

The proposed wind farm is planned by PowerNET Developments, a consortium jointly owned by South African and Lesotho developers, at Letseng-La-Terae which borders the Royal Natal National Park and the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site.

Birdlife said that the total population of endangered Bearded vultures in southern Africa had dropped to below 200 breeding pairs, with almost 60 percent of the surviving population found in Lesotho.

The endemic Cape vulture, which is found in southern Africa and nowhere else in the world, is also a vulnerable species, with 12 percent of the remaining global population found in Lesotho.

An environmental impact assessment report by Classical Environmental Management Services in 2011 made scant mention of the threat to these vulture species and suggested that there were “no fatal environmental flaws” to prevent the project going ahead.

However, the report was strongly criticised by local bird experts and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife for failing to point out the threat.

Since then, a revised report from the company has acknowledged that both vulture species are at high risk of being killed by the spinning blades of wind turbines.

Specialist bird consultant Andrew Jenkins also warned the company that the wind power project was environmentally “unsustainable”, even if the developers tried to mitigate the impacts, for instance, by painting turbine blades to make them more visible.

Another company, Breeze Power, also has plans to build a larger wind farm in the same area, which is expected to increase the risks even further.

PowerNET Developments spokesman AJ van der Merwe has not responded to enquiries from The Mercury.

The company is owned jointly by the South African Aurecon and PowerDev Investment groups and the Lesotho-based Matsete Investment Company and Enerwat Ltd.

Shareholders include Pako Petlane, former Lesotho National Development Company chief executive, and Kuena Phafane, former principal secretary of the Lesotho Department of Trade and Industry.

The proposed wind farm is located next to the Letseng diamond mine, a joint venture between the Lesotho government and Gem Diamonds Ltd. It remains unclear whether the diamond mine would be the main beneficiary of the new wind energy. The environmental impact report says power would be fed into the Lesotho national electricity grid for domestic consumption, with some power also exported to South Africa.

Birdlife International spokesman Julius Arinaitwe said although development was important, it should progress in an environmentally sensitive manner.

Birdlife South Africa chief executive Mark Anderson said: “We have learnt from partners in Europe and North America that incorrectly located wind farms can lead to massive mortalities of vultures and eagles.”

David Allan, curator of birds at the Durban Natural Science Museum, has also called for the Letseng project to be abandoned because of the “dire threat” it poses to vultures.