A local conservationist and falconer of Kuimbashiri Bird Sanctuary, Gary Stafford is working on establishing Zimbabwe’s first vulture rehabilitation centre on the shores of Lake Chivero – one of the country’s most important reservoirs.
Situated 32 kilometres South East of Harare on the Manyame River, Lake Chivero covers a 26 kilometres square area and serves as the capital city’s primary source of water supply.
The lake has 26 species of fish and its environs is rich in flora and fauna. Common wild animals in the area include the southern white rhino, Angolan giraffe, Burchell’s zebra, blue wildebeest, impala, kudu, waterbuck, tsessebe, common eland, sable, baboon, monkey, duiker, warthog, bush pig, rock hyrax, scrub hare, spring hare, and the bush squirrel among others.
The msasa tree, commonly known as zebrawood, covers much of the thick forests at Lake Chivero
However, fishing is the primary and most popular activity in the park.
To provide shelter for injured birds and those from abandoned families, in 1994, Gary established a bird sanctuary called ‘Kuimbashiri’ meaning ‘singing birds’. It is a non-profit making bird park initiative.
The sanctuary has been providing shelter to more than 400 bird species. Some of the birds were brought in injured while some are from broken families. It shelters both indigenous and exotic birds.
An interview, Gary confirmed working on a project to establish a rehabilitation centre for injured or poisoned vultures in Zimbabwe.
Tragic events which occurred three years ago, motivated the idea of a rehabilitation centre.
“Our goal has always been taking care of injured birds or those from broken families using the available resources and facility, but in 2020 we encountered a problem of having to deal with poisoned vultures from Featherstone after they consumed poisoned meat. It was a flock of about 300 birds, and my son Joshua rushed to the site after receiving a call from a farmer,” said Gary.
Joshua confirmed that the birds had ingested poisoned meat after which measures were taken to reduce the effect of poison for other birds at the site.
“For those that were severely affected, we brought them to Kamfinsa Veterinary Centre after getting the approval from Zimparks, but it was difficult to save them all since there are no rehabilitation facilities for vultures in the country. Our bird park as well does not have such resources.
“Of the 25 birds that we managed to ferry to Harare, one died on the way while another one died at the centre.”
The poisoning took the lives of a significant number of vultures although many were saved with the assistance of colleagues in South Africa who shared vital information. The experience however laid bare the need for Zimbabwe to have a rehabilitation centre of its own, hence Gary’s current push.
“To be fully recovered from any form of poisoning, vultures need about six months to gain back their normal strength to fly back into the wild and as a country, we would need a rehabilitation facility to take care of them until they are fully recovered,” said Joshua.
Recent studies have shown that there is a significant decline in the vulture population largely because of intentional and unintentional poisoning. Poisoning accounts for about 61% of all vulture deaths.
According to a report by Wild Zambezi, seven of the 11 vulture species found in Africa including five of the continent’s six indigenous species are considered internationally vulnerable. Five of these species, were recently added to the Red List of endangered species.
It is now a criminal offense to kill a vulture in Zimbabwe, even accidentally, according to the sixth schedule of the Parks and Wildlife Act.
It is believed that many poachers are turning to poisoning when hunting large animals like elephants and rhinos for their ivory. This results in vultures dying in great numbers after eating the carcasses.
Other animals, among them carnivores and scavengers, have also died after consuming poisoned meat.
Vultures have additionally been targeted by poachers who fear that their presence may draw attention of authorities to their kill.
Therefore, to protect the species from extinction, Kuimbashiri is establishing a rehabilitation centre for vultures that would see Zimbabwe having the capacity to save poisoned birds through rehabilitation.
Construction work is still underway and is in its initial stages. The site has been cleared and work to erect a fence is in progress.
“This project is being funded from our pockets, therefore, it is still early to say when it will be completed but I hope it will be sooner,” said Gary.
Preventing Extinctions Programme Manager of Birdlife Zimbabwe, Fadzai Matsvimbo says critically endangered species of vultures in the country are the white-backed vulture, hooded vultures as well as the lappet-faced vultures.
“One of the biggest threats to vultures is secondary poisoning. A lthough they are not always the target, they suffer a lot of collateral damage and these cases are not only found in Zimbabwe; we have cases that take place in and around our neighbouring countries such as South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, and so forth. The cases of poisoning vultures are highly linked to the illegal wildlife trade when people are targeting high-value animals such as elephants and rhinos and in the process, vultures tend to get killed,” said Matsvimbo.
Another threat that has been faced by vultures the harvesting of its parts for traditional purposes. In the African culture, some believe vultures can help a person to be able to see into the future using the head of the vulture mixed with traditional medicine.
Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association (ZINATHA) President, George Kandiero confirmed that vultures are under threat due to the increased illegal harvesting of vultures by traditional healers and prophets for medicinal use.
“Having a rehabilitation centre of vultures in Zimbabwe would contribute immensely towards saving the species from being destroyed especially through poisoning,” said Kandiero.
There are fears that poisoning can lead to the elimination of vultures considered important bird which play a critical role in the ecosystem. Vultures consume carrion before it decays.
Scientific studies have established that the stomach of a vulture contains an incredibly potent acid that destroys many of the toxic substances found in dead animals. Since they only eat dead animal carcasses, vultures are particularly effective at removing pathogens and toxins from the environment.
Matsvimbo says Birdlife Zimbabwe has been spearheading several projects such as the Zimbabwe Vultures Action Plan, in collaboration with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority since the early 2000s in areas around Driefontein, Serima, Fairfield, Muteo Forest, parts of Chikomba district, Chirumanzu as well as parts of Gutu District
“Zimbabwe does not have rehab centres for vultures just because it is quite expensive to establish and run a rehab centre; they require a guaranteed source of funding, therefore as a country we have been focusing more on conserving wildlife from their habitat,” she said.
“We would like to commend Kuimbashiri for spearheading such an important establishment in Zimbabwe as it would contribute much towards preventing any fatalities of vultures due to lack of resources to save them.”
A number of bird species in Zimbabwe are considered endangered and vulnerable.
Gary emphasised that birds are important to the ecosystem and need to be protected at all cost.
“It is sad that on the New Years’ eve, despite the ban of firecrackers, some people blow up some firecrackers at the Lake and this led to the death of some birds due to shock. Some of those that survived the shock are still weak,” said Gary
Birdlife Zimbabwe says other than vultures, species that are classified as threatened species in the country are the cranes (Majori/ Maoriori) and the Southern ground hornbill (Dendera).
Over the years, injured animals and birds were taken to the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, which rehabilitates animals.
Kuimbashiri vultures’ rehabilitation centre will specialise on poisoned vultures as a precautionary measure to prevent the endangered species from being eliminated through poisoning.