By Keith L. Bildstein, Ph.D., Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
11 November 2016
I began my studies of the world Critically Endangered Hooded Vulture in The Gambia in September of 2013, when colleagues and I placed four tracking devices on individuals in the exurbs of Banjul, the capital of that country. Almost immediately thereafter, I thought about investigating their populations in Senegal as well. Senegal, the western most mainland country in Africa is a much larger nation that completely encircles The Gambia–except for the latter’s small Atlantic coastline– and is an ecological transition zone between the humid tropics farther south, and the Saharan desert of Mauritania to the north.
This year’s meeting of the Pan African Ornithological Congress in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, gave me the perfect excuse to follow up on this. After attending the Congress and the important Second Pan African Vulture Summit associated with it, my colleagues and I tried to capture several “hoodies” in hopes of placing satellite tracking devices on them. We also conducted three roadside surveys of vultures to learn more about the distribution of Hoodies and other vultures in the country.
Two mornings of trapping attempts at the Dakar Zoo produced no captures, and our attention on Sunday, the 23rd of October turned to leaving Dakar and traveling north to the small city of Louga, where three of us, Drs. Lindy Thompson, Rien Van Wijk, and I, planned to meet with a group of other European and African vulture biologists who also planned to survey vultures populations.
All went quite smoothly until we reached the town of Thies, Senegal, where our low-cost rental car overheated, forcing us wait on the curb for 6 hours for a replacement, which arrived only after darkness fell. Driving at night in Africa is never easy–livestock, pedestrians, aggressive drivers, and potholes, see to that–and it was past midnight when we reached Louga, long after our colleagues had gone to bed.
A breakfast meeting the next day resulted in a decision to head southwest to the village of Dars, and then southeast on to the city of Mbaké, slightly more than 200 kilometers away, while surveying vultures en route. Our colleagues would survey other routes. We saw 169 vultures along the way, including 17 hoodies, 47 Ruppell’s Vultures, 71 White-backed Vultures and 34 Gyps vultures that we could not identify to species. The route took us through open habitats not unlike those we survey in South Africa, except for the fact that all of the ungulates we saw on the way were domestic livestock (i.e., sheep, goats and cattle), rather than wild antelopes and other native mammals. We spent the night in a small, and somewhat questionable, hotel on the outskirts of Mbaké, where a small red light over our beds confirmed our suspicions concerning the facility’s hourly rates of stay.
The next day involved following a meandering survey route to the city of Kaolack, which our travel guide referred to as the “armpit of Senegal. ” Unfortunately, Kaolack turned out to be aptly named. Our approach to the city included skirting the edge of a primary sewage treatment facility, which quickly cleared our nasal passages of the dust they had accumulated over the course of the day. Our hotel and the opposite side of town proved to be something of an oasis, even if the highlight of its view-shed was an enormous
mountain of salt excavated from the adjacent hypersaline estuary. The day’s route included good looks at 46 Hooded Vultures, together with lesser numbers of Ruppell’s, White-backed, and Lappet-faced Vultures, along with several impressive multi-thousand bird flocks of White Storks. Our third and final survey route, which took us back to Dakar, produced an additional 69 Hooded Vultures, a number of which were sighted in Dakar itself, together with smaller numbers of African White-backed and Ruppell’s vultures. Although we were not sure of what to expect, the numbers of hoodies, in particular, were more that I imagined, albeit much less than 10% the density of those we had seen on similar surveys in The Gambia in 2013 and 2015, in more moist wooded habitats, about a hundred kilometers farther south.
Although we collected our data in a traditional fashion using our odometer to indicate the locations of all birds we sighted, we later entered our counts into the newly developed African Raptor Databank (ARDB). The brain child of my good friend Dr. Rob Davies, the ARDB aims to ascertain the conservation status of raptors and their habitats across Africa, and to help build the local expertise needed to monitor these species in the future and implement a sound strategy for their effective safeguarding.
The ARDB will be completed in two phases. The first involves building a database over a period of five years (2013 – 2018). The second involves distribution modelling of each species in relation to the availability of its habitat and production of a conservation atlas for African raptors, online and hard copy. The project which received initial support from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, is managed by habitat INFO, and is currently co-funded by The Peregrine Fund.
Given our initial experiences in Senegal, I plan to return early next year to conduct additional road surveys, as well as trap and affix tracking devices to two or more hoodies.
Importantly participants at the Second Pan African Vulture Summit I attended agreed to foster additional roadside surveys of African Vultures, the majority of which, including Hooded Vultures, are globally threatened or endangered. Hawk Mountain plans to help in this effort every way possible, so that we can better assess vulture abundances and distributions, and, in so doing, formulate practical and effective conservation action plans.
Stay tuned as we continue to do so.
For information on how you can help, contact me at email@example.com.