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Vulpro

Shamwari Private Game Reserve

DHL Africa

Faculty of Veterinary Science

Photography: Wiki West

Gauntlet Birds of Prey, Eagle, & Vulture Park

The World’s Largest Vulture Relocation

The first phase of a monumental project to secure the future of wild vulture populations in southern Africa has been triumphantly completed with the translocation of 163 Cape and African White-backed vultures into their new home at Shamwari Private Game Reserve. This collaboration between Shamwari, Vulpro, DHL, and WeWild Africa marks the largest translocation of vultures ever undertaken in the world.

 

The Record-Breaking Journey

A team of over 50 people, in a meticulously planned operation, took from an anticipated 3-4 loading process to a record-breaking 2.5 hours to load these critically endangered birds for their 1042 km journey, lasting over 18 hours. Dr. Katja Koeppel and Dr. Johan Joubert led the local veterinary team, ensuring the birds’ welfare throughout the process.

DHL, renowned for their logistical expertise, played a crucial role in the safe transportation of the vultures, while we at WeWild Africa were  instrumental in the pre-event logistics, funding, partnerships, security, specialized custom crates and the entire loading and route operations of the world’s largest vulture translocation.

Dereck Milburn, Director of WeWild Africa, shared his insights on the groundbreaking vulture translocation project. As one of the architects of this monumental effort, Milburn's words capture the essence and impact of the initiative. He states:

This is definitely one of the most unique undertakings when it comes to vultures in history. The vultures went from Hartbeespoort Dam, which is operated by one of the best vulture facilities in Africa, if not the world, called VulPro. The birds went to Shamwari; Shamwari has established state-of-the-art facilities for these vultures to give them a better future. The Eastern Cape can absorb a lot of vultures, and there is a lot of safe space for them to establish new populations and supplement existing populations.

With an operation like this, you can imagine, moving 163 vultures at once is a significant undertaking from a logistics point of view because each of the vultures had to be created individually. So we had to build 163 vulture crates from wood, and DHL was our transport partner. We loaded two DHL interlinks full of vultures. The vultures all arrived there successfully. They settled in nicely, and there were no mortalities en route which we were all very thankful for.

What conservation implications does this translocation hold for the future of wild vulture population in southern africa? 

The key issue is that people are not really aware of the real plight that vultures are in. The focus is often placed on the more iconic and charismatic species like elephants, rhinos, and lions. People don’t see the vultures at this important and critical species in our ecosystems. Just to give you a few figures here, here are about six species of vultures that we focus on in the region, in terms of the white-headed vultures there are about 80-100 breeding pairs left in the country as a whole. They breed very slowly. As for hooded vultures, there are about 50-100 breeding pairs left. White-Backed Vultures there are about 4,0o0 breeding pairs left, Lappet-Faced Vultures there are 180 breeding pairs left, Cape Vulture which is the more common there are only 4,500 breeding pairs left,  and then the Bearded Vulture, which is found in the Drakensberg region, has only about 50-100 breeding pairs left. So you can just see those figures, and anyone that sees those figures will be concerned about the numbers of vultures we have left. And people do not realize these numbers. 

The challenge is when groups of vultures are poisoned, we can lose 100-120 vultures at a time; so you are losing a significant portion of the population when there is poisoning. So this specific translocation already supports the supplementation of these populations, and ensures that we have a safe source and pool of vulture that we can send back to the wild, and that is the critical thing of captive breeding for the purpose of release. 

This move then really allows us to have a long-term future for vultures. These birds will breed and then we will not only release them at Shamwari, but take them to other parts of Southern Africa. This intervention, hence, is absolutely critical for the survival of the species. 

What it also does is it emphasizes and highlights vulture because, as I said, people often overlook them. I am very glad that just the sheer scale of this operation has really brought a lot of much-needed attention to the vulture, so it has really done wonders. 

And thank you to the partners: Shamwari is an amazing reserve, and VulPro has been operating for many years and has made a huge impact on the vulture populations, and of course DHL for supplying the interlinks.  

Do you think the roles of vultures in nature are sometimes undermined by the broader public?

Absolutely, and that is a key issue. It is very difficult, number one, to raise funds for vulture projects. If anyone shoots an elephant, people get quite upset about it, but no one really gets too concerned when a few vultures get poisoned. But the reality is that animals play a critical role in the ecosystem, and without vultures the impacts are significant. I do not think the public realizes where we are in terms of the numbers of the vulture populations. We are talking about 100 breeding pairs left for some of these vultures, that is 200 individuals left in the entire country. 

For us to raise funds for these birds, people need to understand these figures. This translocation is what the country needed from a conservation management point of view. We are excited to see what the impact of this is going to be. Obviously Shamwari gets a lot of high-profile visitors each year, high net worth individuals, so hopefully with more of those types of people visiting the facilities at Shamwari, we will get more funding for these types of projects, because we cannot implement any of these projects without funding, and that is a key issue. To summarize, the broader public definitely undervalue and underestimate vultures and their role in the ecosystem and it is difficult to change mindsets, but we are slowly and surely getting there. With a translocation like this, where we talk about massive logistics, and you see the photos and the videos, and just see the sheer scale of the operation, one that has never been achieved before, it will put vultures on the map. 

Delve into the operations-day narrative by Wiki West, who is in charge of Media and Digital at WeWild Africa. Through her lens, Wiki offers a behind-the-scenes look at the intricacies of the operation day, the 18-hour journey, and the awe-inspiring final vulture release. Join us as we step into the field:

As the photographer for the world’s largest vulture relocation project, I found myself immersed in what can only be described as one of the most incredible journeys and team efforts of my life. Countless moments, I found myself in awe, and reminded of what an honor and privilege it is to be part of such a significant conservation effort and to witness so many people working together for a positive environmental impact. 

I arrived the day of the operation at noon to go over some of the logistical briefings between the WeWild Africa and VulPro team and take preliminary media footage. The volunteers trickled in, and at 2pm we had our full briefing. 

Alistair Sincliar, the General Manager of the VulPro team, had a heart-throbbing speech for us. It was palpable how much he loved these birds, reminding us that each vulture is a sentient being with a soul. He emphasized the importance of being careful and kind during the capture process, always prioritizing the well-being of the vultures above all else.

Dereck Milburn, the director of WeWild Africa, conducted a thorough briefing covering safety, logistics, and our detailed loading process. Under his skilled leadership, every aspect was meticulously planned for success. 

Then, it was action time. The sight of volunteers scaling rock walls, running, grasping, falling, all trying to capture vultures which were all trying to fly away was both inspiring and intense. In the ever-increasing midday African heat, the team worked with a rhythm and efficiency that was incredible to witness, capturing one vulture every two minutes despite the pokes and nips of the sharp talons and beaks. The task of loading the vultures, anticipated to take 3-4 hours, was completed in just 2.5 hours, our team functioning like a well-oiled machine, sweating yet perservering, with the grit of true conservationists. 

It was about 5:00 pm when we departed. The 163 crates with the precious cargo were now on the DHL interlink trucks and we all had a nice Boerewors Rolls (an African hotdog) to keep us energized for the long road ahead. We were going to be driving through the night, to ensure that the special birds did not get overheated. 

During the 18-hour, we periodically checked on each vulture, ensuring their well-being. The journey was largely smooth, with the only hiccup occurring when we had to pause at a roadblock to wait for wind turbines being hauled on massive trucks to pass at Olifantskop Pass. We tried to nap, but at the end of a mostly sleepless journey, we were running on adrenaline, gas station snacks, and the mission to release the vultures as soon as possible. 

A truly memorable part of the journey for me was the opportunity to drive with the renowned Dr. Johan Joubert. Listening to his stories of life and death experiences, all the wildlife he had worked with, and his experiences in deep, dark Africa were both captivating and inspiring. It brought a sense of adventure and historical context to our mission, and made me dream of all of the important conservation work to be done in Africa- leaving me buzzing with excitement about WeWild Africa’s plan for 2024. 

We arrived at Shamwari mid-morning the following day, greeted by a substantial logistics team. The site was bustling with rangers, anti-poaching units, the CEO, VIPs, and more, all there to lend a hand. We swiftly dispersed our efforts, successfully transporting the vultures to four different release sites.

I positioned myself in front of the crates set to be opened. As they were unfastened, the vultures burst out, a mix of running, stumbling, and flying, all eager to embrace the open air again. The vultures  paused to spread their massive wings, and in that moment, we all fell silent, overwhelmed, in awe of the moment, and in awe of the birds, and in awe of the accomplishment. 

Every single vulture survived the journey and was successfully released into the acclimatization enclosures. 

Loading the crates for the return journey was a bittersweet moment. The exhilarating part of our mission had concluded for now. The responsibility now shifted to the dedicated teams at VulPro and Shamwari, who would handle the day-to-day care, ensuring each bird remains healthy, well-fed, and prepared for life in the wild.

Reflecting on the expedition, I realized the enormity of what we were part of. It was more than just a relocation; it was making history, and it was the heart of conservation, connecting us to creatures we seldom pay attention to, looking into their eyes, and feeling the heart and soul of mother nature.

The Broader Impact of the Relocation

This project is a milestone in a two-year endeavor to establish a breeding facility, VulPro at Shamwari, for non-releasable, rehabilitated vultures capable of breeding, as well as repopulating the wild vulture population in the Eastern cape Province. The second phase will involve relocating additional vulture species to further bolster conservation efforts.


Kerri Wolter, CEO of VulPro, highlighted the strategic importance of the Shamwari facility in contributing to vulture conservation across the continent. Joe Cloete, Shamwari CEO, compared this achievement to relocating the same amount of rhinos, underscoring the critical role of vultures in maintaining healthy ecosystems. They are both already looking towards the future, with plans to bring Egyptian Vultures back from excision in the Eastern Cape.


Through meticulous long-term planning, unwavering teamwork, and a vision that surpassed all expectations, WeWild Africa and its partners achieved a historic feat. This endeavor not only repopulated a critically endangered species in a new region but also set a precedent for what can be accomplished in the realm of wildlife conservation.

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