By Evan Buechley
Research Associate and Guest Blogger
January 20, 2014
The hooded vulture is a intriguing species found on the African continent that has been little studied, in part because it was common to abundant in towns and even large cities throughout sub-Saharan Africa until recently. However, in the last two decades, catastrophic declines of multiple vulture species in South Asia and near equally dire declines of vultures throughout Africa have called attention to the status of all species of vultures. Biologists and concerned citizens are starting to pay more attention to the hooded vultures that were once abundant and overlooked. And as attention has focused on the species, we have begun to note that this species, too, is suffering rapid declines: the species was uplisted from Least Concern to Endangered in 2011, a troubling change in conservation status as deemed by the IUCN. It is with these concerns in mind that we set out to collaborate with Hawk Mountain Sanctuary to initiate studies on hooded vultures in Ethiopia.
Our lab at the University of Utah works in cooperation with several organizations to study and conserve vultures in the Middle East and North Africa including the Turkish KuzeyDoga Society, the pan-European Vulture Conservation Foundation, and now Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. When Keith Bildstein approached us about collaborating on research with hooded vulture’s in Ethiopia, we were excited to join forces.
The first step in trying to conserve them is to understand how they utilize habitat–where they forage, roost and nest, and how far they travel in search of these necessities. This information will help us to identify vital habitat, to assess threats to their survival, and to create a conservation plan. Accordingly, we set out to trap two of the vultures in Ethiopia this past fall to fit them with GPS units to allow near real-time tracking.
I arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in late September 2013 and immediately started to scout trapping locations. I was encouraged by the abundance of vultures in and around this bustling capitol city, and we set out to visit local butcher shops, or abattoirs, to survey numbers. In Ethiopia, as in many places throughout the world, vultures provide an extremely efficient clean-up crew, consuming carcasses and other waste. Hooded vultures provide particularly important ecological services to humans, as they have adapted to forage at dumps and abattoirs, helping to eliminate waste that could fester and carry disease.
After documenting large numbers of the species at several abattoirs around town, I decided to give trapping a go. This was dirty business, as it required setting up a trap where the vultures were feeding in large numbers.
The competition for these resources was significant with feral dogs and several other bird species, including black and yellow-billed kites, thick-billed ravens, Tawny eagles, and an occasional white-backed vulture. There was also significant disturbance by people in and around the abattoirs and trapping wasn’t looking particularly hopeful in this setting.With trapping unsuccessful in Addis, I relocated to southeastern Ethiopia for other fieldwork, with the hopes that hooded vultures would also be abundant there. We soon found a good population in a remote town on the southeast flank of the Bale Mountains, where lush montane forest intergrades with acacia scrubland stretched out towards the desert lowlands and the Somalia boarder. Here, the setting was much more conducive- and pleasant!- for trapping.
Vulture country in southeastern Ethiopia
After a few days spent scouting sites and after alerting the local authorities of our plans, we managed to trap our first bird very quickly. We quickly took measurements and detailed photographs of this immature bird and fitted it with a GPS transmitter. Thanks to Microwave Telemetry for their great technology that enables this type of work!
The very next day we trapped our second Hooded vulture right after sunrise at 6 am. This bird was an adult, as indicated by its all white head.
Both of the vultures flew well on release—we kept our scopes on them until they were lost amidst the building clouds and an abundance of soaring vultures. And with this sight I couldn’t help but be hopeful—hopeful that these individuals will begin to enlighten us to the ecology of this species, and hopeful that with increased understanding we will be able to plan and inspire conservation actions for this fascinating and vitally important component of our natural world.
This work is a collaboration of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and the University of Utah. Many people were involved in the funding, planning, and execution of this work including Cagan Sekercioglu, Keith Bildstein, Girma Ayelew and the Ethiopia Wildlife Conservation Authority, the Dolo Mena Municipal Council, Sisay Sayfu, Abdu Ibrahim, Khalifa Ali, and Mark Chynoweth. Thanks to Alazar Daka, Yilma Abebe, Darcy Ogada, and Bruktawit Abdu for their guidance and knowledge of sites to find hooded vultures in Ethiopia.