The Greater Kruger National Park has faced a significant threat to its wildlife, particularly vultures and other raptors, due to a series of poisoning incidents that began in September 2015. These incidents have resulted in the loss of more than 1,500 vultures, as well as other species like African Lions, Leopards, and Spotted Hyenas.
To combat this crisis, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and the Hawk Conservancy Trust joined forces in a partnership with SANParks to reduce the prevalence and impact of these poisonings. A crucial part of their mission involved conducting aerial surveys to assess the impact of these incidents on the breeding populations of vultures and other raptors in the Kruger National Park.
The primary objective of this mission was to repeat the aerial surveys of vulture nests initially conducted between 2011 and 2015. The goal was to determine how these incidents had affected the breeding populations of three species of tree-nesting vultures: African White-backed (classified as Critically Endangered), White-headed (also Critically Endangered), and Lappet-faced Vulture (Endangered). Additionally, the survey aimed to monitor various other raptors using the same methodology as in previous surveys, ensuring data compatibility. The Vultures for Africa Programme of the EWT collaborated with The Bateleurs, who provided a helicopter for the survey. The first part of the survey was carried out in September 2020.
The survey's second phase took place between September 9th and 20th, 2023, with pilot Eugene Couzyn volunteering his Alouette II Helicopter for the mission. The EWT handled logistical arrangements, ensuring an adequate fuel supply. The helicopter was stationed at different locations during the survey.
SANParks played a vital role by assisting with flight permissions, participant briefings, and permitting the use of specific helicopter pads. Dr. Campbell Murn and Eugene worked together to draft flight plans, covering all proposed survey areas. Local rangers were also informed about the survey, promoting coordination and awareness.
The survey team consisted of Eugene as the pilot, EWT staff, and volunteers from SANParks and the Southern African Wildlife College. Data was recorded using Cybertracker software on electronic devices. The survey involved flying along planned routes at altitudes between 50-75 meters, looking for vulture nests and other large nesting birds or species of conservation concern. When a nest was spotted, the aircraft would circle the site to record data on its location, activity status, and the tree species involved. The survey covered 43.6 flying hours in total.
However, the mission did not meet its primary objective.
Issues with the quality and purity of the supplied fuel forced the team to abandon the last two days of the survey for safety reasons. Despite efforts to replace the helicopter's fuel filter, time constraints led to this decision. Thanks to the intervention of David Simelane from SANParks Air-wing, the helicopter was provided with Jet A1 fuel for its return to Gauteng.
Despite this setback, the data collected during the first ten days of the survey, combined with data from the 2020 survey, it is expected to be sufficient for meaningful analysis. Detailed data analysis is currently underway, and the results will be shared with relevant stakeholders, including The Bateleurs and other parties. Potential peer-reviewed publications may arise from this work, contributing to the ongoing efforts to protect the wildlife of the Greater Kruger National Park.