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Where do the vultures go when the wildebeest leave Masai Mara?
Corinne Kendall — in East Africa Project    Share

Each year from July to October, Masai Mara National Reserve springs to life as over a million wildebeest enter the park, followed by thousands of zebras and Thompson's gazelles. During this migratory period, this smorgasbord of food brings new life to the carnivores; cheetahs, lions, hyenas, and leopards abound as they are able to support their cubs, thanks to the wildebeest moveable feast. The migratory animals that are suddenly densely packed in the less than 2000 square kilometer reserve ensure a reliable supply of carcasses. Vultures fly in from hundreds of kilometers to take advantage of it.

But the migration has long since ended and the millions of wildebeest have returned to the Serengeti. As a result, one of the questions we are finally able to answer is where do the vultures go when the wildebeest leave Masai Mara? For decades, many researchers have believed that they follow the wildebeest back into the Serengeti in Tanzania where they will spend the rest of the year. For a few of our birds, this has been the case. But for many it has not.  In the last few months, we have watched as our birds travel the East African region some flying to Ngorogoro crater in Tanzania, others heading North to Laikipia, a few hanging nearby and heading to Hell's Gate National Park and Lake Naivasha, and a surprising number flying far east to both Tsavo parks. If only my new year could be filled with such travel!  No two birds have taken quite the same path and not a single species of vulture has been found to remain with the wildebeest.

Vultures20 December 2009

One of the sad things we can learn from the units is where vultures are dying. Since attaching the GSM-GPS units, two birds have died and for both we suspect poisoning. People have been using the chemical, Furadan, to kill vultures, lions, and hyenas by sprinkling this deadly poison onto the bodies of dead animals. Scavengers come to feed and are quickly killed; sometimes in the hundreds at a single site. While a poisoning event was recorded in Masai Mara National Reserve this summer, most of the issues occur outside the reserve. Such was the sad fate for our first African White-backed Vulture and more recently for a Lappet-faced Vulture.

This map shows the last few movements of one of our Lappet-faced Vultures, who was still hanging around Masai Mara National Reserve and was killed just north of the park (see blue dots).

Map of Masai Mara

15 December 2009 

VultureRecent data from The Peregrine Fund documents staggering declines of vultures and other avian scavengers in Masai Mara National Reserveover the last three decades. Understanding the reasons for these declines is paramount if we hope to conserve these essential recyclers of the savanna. A useful tool for determining the reason for declines is studying the movement ofvultures.

 Between July and August of 2009, 14 GSM-GPS units were attached to three different species of vulture: the Lappet-faced Vulture, Ruppell's Vulture,and African White-backed Vulture. GSM-GPS units use GPS to record locations andactually use cell phone signals, rather than satellite, to transmit data back tothe researchers about where the birds are going; giving us nearly real-time information about vulture behavior. These units allow us to follow the vulturesand to answer a plethora of important ecological questions like: How far do theyfly? What is the home and day range size for a vulture? How much time do theyspend inside Masai Mara National Reserve? Are there any key areas outside ofprotected areas where vultures spend a large portion of their time? What habitat preferences do vultures have?

Over the next few months, I will walk you through the journey of a vulture, describing some of the interesting insights we are gaining from following theirmovements. I hope you will join me on this exciting safari of discovery.

Find more articles about Lappet-faced Vulture, Rüppell's Vulture, White-backed Vulture, Africa

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