Notes from the Field: Treating Endangered African Vultures

This is the second in a series detailing the Detroit Zoological Society’s recent vulture conservation fieldwork in South Africa. For Part I, click here.

The Detroit Zoological Society’s latest field conservation project was with VulPro, an organization in South Africa that works to rehabilitate sick and injured vultures in order to return them to vulnerable wild populations. With seven of the 11 African vulture species currently endangered or critically endangered, the DZS is working with VulPro to reverse the crisis literally one vulture at a time.

Through community outreach efforts, sick vultures come to VulPro from as far as eight hours away. They arrive in all sorts of conditions, sometimes with broken bones or open wounds, signs of poisoning or evidence of electrocution, and they’re often dehydrated and starving.

I traveled to South Africa this winter to assist VulPro in their efforts. During my time there, a farmer discovered a Cape vulture on his land that was weak and unable to fly, and a VulPro volunteer drove several hours to collect the bird and bring him back to us. He was an older adult male who we affectionately called “Old Guy”, and when he arrived, he was too weak to stand or even lift his head. We immediately got to work. A brief assessment revealed that he was severely dehydrated. We secured an identification band, placed an intravenous catheter in a vein in his leg, and examined, cleaned and bandaged a wound on his left wing. The wound – as well as bruising along his elbow – were presumably caused by barbed wire and likely left him temporarily unable to fly.

We then moved Old Guy into an ICU unit – a small space that prevented him from pulling on his fluid line but also allows us to see him at all times – which also happened to be the shower in the VulPro director’s house. VulPro is a small but mighty non-profit, and the team makes creative use of every resource available, even if that means sharing the bathroom with a critical vulture patient. After 15 minutes, Old Guy was still quite lifeless, with a heart rate two times slower than a healthy vulture. We continued to keep a close watch, and after 45 minutes on fluids, he was able to stand on his own. Over the next several hours, Old Guy slowly came back to life. He was given a companion vulture overnight and both were moved to the outdoor hospital enclosures in the morning. Over the next few days, Old Guy improved dramatically and began eating on his own. He even got a bit feisty with us, which is a true sign of a healthy vulture.

Over the past two months, Old Guy has continued to improve, and he will be released later this month at VulPro’s release site in the Magaliesberg mountains.

VulPro also conducts many crucial research and population-level conservation initiatives, but saving individuals like Old Guy – one vulture at a time – is at the core of the mission of both the Detroit Zoological Society and VulPro. This truly exemplifies compassionate conservation.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society and operates out of the Detroit Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

Notes from the Field: Saving Endangered African Vultures

Most people probably don’t consider vultures to be lovable creatures. But I do, which is why I spent a month this winter working with VulPro, an African vulture conservation organization that rescues and rehabilitates sick and injured vultures. I first fell in love with the African vultures who live here at the Detroit Zoo – there are four different species with as many different personalities as there are individual vultures. By caring for these animals, not only did I gain affection and respect for African vultures, but I also gained special skills in the veterinary care of these amazing birds, and I was thrilled when the Detroit Zoological Society gave me the opportunity to use those skills to help directly with the conservation of wild vultures in Africa.

You may wonder why African vultures need saving. Groups of turkey vultures soaring overhead are a common sight here in Michigan. Fortunately, North American vulture species are doing well, but all across the continent of Africa, populations of wild vultures are declining rapidly. There are 11 species of vultures in Africa, and according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List, seven of those species are currently endangered or critically endangered.

Vultures play a significant role in the ecosystem health; they are essentially nature’s clean-up crew. By scavenging and cleaning up carcasses, they can prevent the spread of deadly diseases, such as anthrax and botulism, and they have an amazing ability to clean up these diseases without becoming infected themselves. Without vultures around to provide their sanitation services, infected carcasses disappear more slowly and attract more mammalian scavengers, resulting in a huge increase in the potential for disease transmission. Thus, it is hugely problematic that African vulture populations are plummeting and so quickly.

There are numerous threats to wild populations of vultures. In South Africa, power line collisions are one of the biggest threats to vultures. In other places, vultures are subject to poisoning; for instance, poachers will often poison carcasses to prevent circling vultures from alerting rangers to the poached animal’s remains. Sometimes vultures are unintentionally poisoned when a farmer is trying to target a predator, such as a lion, that has been preying on cattle. Vultures can also face long-term health problems from eating carcasses that have bullet fragments in them, causing lead poisoning.

African vulture populations are in serious need of help, and the Detroit Zoological Society is working with VulPro, an African vulture conservation organization based near Pretoria, South Africa, to rehabilitate the sick and injured wild vultures they receive and release them back into the wild. When staff are unable to restore a vulture’s ability to survive in the wild, the bird becomes a resident at VulPro and has the opportunity to nest and breed. The offspring are then released into the wild.

In January, I traveled to South Africa to perform routine health checks for the more than 200 vultures that live at VulPro’s facility. This involved checking their body condition, listening to their heart and lungs, checking wing and leg joints, and looking into their eyes. We also set up a small laboratory for VulPro, where we collected blood to look at red and white blood cell counts, measure blood protein levels, and test for the presence of lead. I also checked fecal samples to look for parasites. Our results showed the overall health of the residents at VulPro is excellent!

This partnership with VulPro is the latest in the Detroit Zoological Society’s comprehensive wildlife conservation programs. We are committed to saving birds around the world.

– Dr. Sarah Woodhouse is a veterinarian for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Detroit Zoo Hosts First International HAZWOPER Training

The Detroit Zoo recently hosted the first international Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) training, facilitated by the Alaska Sea Life Center of Seward, Alaska. Part of the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS’s) dedication to conservation includes annual training for DZS staff in HAZWOPER, which allows them to be prepared to respond immediately and help save wildlife affected by oil spills and other environmental emergencies locally, nationally and internationally.

The first international HAZWOPER training included 10 DZS staff members and eight other individuals from zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). Currently, there are only 90 individuals from 50 AZA institutions who have this level of training, which included a two-day classroom course, an eight-hour online course on the nationally recognized Incident Command System, and an environmental disaster drill. The eventual goal of AZA and the Alaska Sea Life Center is to develop regional emergency centers across the country.

DZS staff has responded to three significant oil spills, providing assistance with the rehabilitation of several species and tens of thousands of animals.

Deepwater Horizon/BP
The largest marine oil spill in history took place in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and the BP pipe leaked an estimated 2.2 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf every day for nearly three months. This oil spill affected 400 different species of wildlife, including 8,000 birds, 1,100 sea turtles and 109 mammals. DZS Veterinary Technician Amanda Dabaldo traveled to New Orleans in July 2010 to assist with the recovery efforts.

Amanda spent two weeks working with the Audubon Nature Institute providing medical care for more than 140 juvenile sea turtles.

Enbridge
The Enbridge Oil Spill occurred in July 2010, when a broken pipeline leaked oil along 25 miles of river between Marshall and Battle Creek, Mich. An estimated one million gallons of oil affected thousands of animals including birds, mammals and reptiles – turtles were most affected. The Detroit Zoo, along with other AZA zoos including the Toledo Zoo, Binder Park Zoo, Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, Potter Park Zoo and the John Ball Zoo, partnered with teams such as Focus Wildlife, TriMedia Environmental and Engineering Services LLC, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set up a rehabilitation center in Marshall. Nine DZS staff members spent more than 600 hours between August and October 2010, providing daily care for frogs and turtles.

hazwoper-8

Treasure
In June 2000, the oil freighter Treasure sank off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa and 1,300 tons of fuel oil spilled near the largest colonies of African penguins.

 

Forty percent of the penguin population was affected by this oil spill; 19,000 of the birds had oiled feathers and went through the rehabilitation process, 3,300 chicks that were abandoned were reared and released; and about 19,500 birds were air-lifted and taken several miles up the coast and released.

 

Two DZS penguin keepers, Jessica Jozwiak and Bonnie Van Dam each spent three weeks assisting with this project.

– Bonnie Van Dam is the associate curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society.