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Last bearded vultures seek survival in Dragon Mountain home

The last bearded vultures in South Africa’s Drakensberg mountains are imperiled by unintended poisoning by farmers and traditional healers who believe that consuming parts of the birds brings luck and prosperity.

Add to those threats plans for a 42-turbine wind farm on the Lesotho side of the range whose name in Afrikaans means Dragon Mountains. Scientists say the energy project endangers a shrinking habitat for the 350 surviving vultures.

Conservationists have strapped solar-powered trackers to some of the birds, enabling their flight to be monitored by satellite. Sometimes, the signals stop. Of 20 birds fitted with the 2.5 oz (70-gram) trackers, 10 are still alive.

“The tracking helps us to determine causes of death and identify high-use areas in which to focus conservation efforts,” said Sonja Kruger, the ecologist who leads the Bearded Vulture Task Force from the city of Pietermaritzburg in central KwaZulu-Natal province. “We’re facing overwhelming odds and the information is critical.”

The vultures have a wingspan of nine feet (2.7 meters) and stand four feet tall. They live off a diet of bone and marrow, extracting nourishment by dropping the bones of dead animals from height and dashing them on the rocks below.

Conservationists want to protect the vultures’ aerie in a stretch of the Drakensberg, a range that snakes for 620 miles (1,000 kilometer) through eastern South Africa, climbing as high as 11,400 feet.

Jackal Bait

The scientists are trying to dissuade farmers from laying the deadly bait that kills jackals that take their sheep – but also poisons the birds of prey. Traditional healers shoot, trap and poison the birds, which are believed to provide clairvoyant powers that bring success in gambling and business, improve children’s school marks and relieve ailments including headaches.

The grim outlook for South Africa’s bearded vultures contrasts with the success of a program in Europe that has limited the decline in the species’ numbers there since 1970 to 10 percent. In the Swiss Alps and the French Pyrenees, numbers have increased thanks to a strategy agreed to, and followed by governments and private organizations, according to BirdLife International.

The proposed construction of a wind farm on the Drakensberg’s north-eastern escarpment will accelerate the vultures’ demise, said Samantha Ralston, Birds and Renewable Energy Manager at conservation group BirdLife South Africa.

Diamond Mine

Vultures are particularly prone to colliding with turbine blades, she said. “One can expect that for every 10 turbines at least one vulture will be killed every year.” A decline in bird numbers on the Lesotho side of the mountain will reduce the chance of the population in KwaZulu-Natal surviving ,she said.

PowerNET Developments Pty Ltd. envisages building the turbines on a site overlooking the Letšeng-La-Terae diamond mine, each generating 850 kW for local residents. The mine is 70 percent owned by London-based Gem Diamonds Ltd. (GEMD) and 30 percent by the Lesotho government.

Work on the $53 million windfarm is being held up as landlocked Lesotho prepares for elections in February, said Marius du Preez, a project director on the venture.

The developers have taken note of suggestions to curb the impact of the turbines, said Du Preez, who declined to give details. “We’d have to look at what was done overseas to reduce the risk to these birds,” he said. “We take their plight very seriously.”