• Olivia Earth

Bearded Vulture Project

The Bearded Vulture Project is something I have been involved with for a very long time and has included excitement, heartbreak and adventure! Nothing is more rewarding than ‘giving back’, especially something that you’re passionate about – in my case, birds!


Copyright Olivia Earth

Bearded vultures (gypaetus barbatus) were first introduced to me when I started birding at age 10 (For perspective, I am now 21). I was inspired by a conversation I had with Hugh Chittenden who spoke to me about his recent visit to Giant’s Castle hide in the Drakensberg. Hugh is a bird photographer and has published many books including the Roberts Bird Guide, second edition (2016). After doing some research I asked my dad to come birding with me in the hopes of seeing my very first bearded vulture.

We were unsuccessful in our attempts to see this elusive bird and a trigger went off in my head, “why is it so difficult to see them?”. As an 11 year old, I was bitterly disappointed that even after hours of patient waiting we had failed. This prompted further debate with my dad and we realised that they were so difficult to see due to them being endangered from threats such as poisonings (anthropogenic threats).

One thing led to another and I got in contact with Ian Rushworth of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife who explained to me the dire situation of the birds. When Ian had finished patiently answering all of my questions I piped up that I was going to help him save the population by selling cupcakes at school! Ian gave me a sweet smile and encouraged my enthusiasm for getting involved with the project he helped to run, the Bearded Vulture Project. Later that day I received an email from him detailing the expenses of the project and I realised that cupcakes probably wouldn’t be sustainable or sufficient…back to the drawing board!

My dad, Mark, has been instrumental in building my confidence and inspiring me to have the courage of my convictions. We decided that the best approach to dealing with the bearded vulture problem was to contact local businesses around Durban and ask them if I could come and present a slideshow to them about the threats to bearded vultures and what funding from them could achieve in terms of increasing the plight of the birds. And so I became a fund raiser. Honestly, I think being blonde, 12, and passionate was a big advantage for me when asking for donations as it was novel for businessmen to be approached by a child. I had the most incredible feedback and support and raised about R300 000 for the Bearded Vulture Project before I turned 14. It must be mentioned that I was supported with an initial donation from Marriott Properties which gave the project wings, so to say.

Bearded Vultures Under Threat

The Bearded Vulture is a highly specialized species in terms of its habitat requirements and food choice. It prefers mountainous regions far away from human disturbances and, as a result, Bearded Vulture populations are usually small and isolated. It nests  predominantly on basalt cliffs in potholes at an altitude of about 2500 m. Breeding success is high but many fledglings die before they mature. Adults have a high survival rate. Bearded Vultures are scavengers that cover large distances, and are often seen outside protected areas. The Bearded Vulture was called the ‘Lammergeier’ because it was thought that these birds preyed on lambs. This is incorrect because it feeds almost exclusively on bones from carcasses and does not hunt or kill prey

Project Aims

The overall goal of the Bearded Vulture Task Force is to ensure collaboration between Lesotho and South Africa in implementing the actions identified in the Bearded Vulture Conservation Action Plan. Successful implementation of the actions will prevent further declines in the numbers and range of the Bearded Vulture.

The project aims to:

  1. Obtain an accurate estimate of population size and nesting success for Bearded Vultures in southern Africa.

  2. Identify and address any conservation threats, such as a decrease in habitat and food supply, human persecution and disturbances at nests, poisoning, and collisions with power lines.

  3. Encourage the establishment of feeding sites throughout their foraging range to ensure a regular source of “safe” food.

  4. Ensure the long-term survival of the species by protecting at least part of its breeding and foraging range through partnerships between conservation organizations and land users.

Tracking Movements

During 2007 the Bearded Vulture Task Force fitted satellite transmitters to three individuals to obtain more information on their movement patterns and causes of juvenile mortality. The project’s activities require an extensive education and awareness programmes which together with a concerted effort to address the threats to the species will go a long way to ensuring their long-term survival. The movements of bearded vultures are still being tracked today. Please click here to see a map of the most recent bearded vulture activities: Vultures_28Mayto3June18.

Below are images of the team capturing and tagging the birds to record important data.

Olivia the Bearded Vulture Dies

In 2012 I experienced my first true heartbreak. The bearded vulture project had wonderfully named a young juvenile after me that had been captured, tagged and released. But unfortunately, Olivia was found dead after a suspected poisoning in 2012. I was horrified that after so many years of work something so special and gentle could be so easily taken from this earth. I tried to rather see this as an opportunity to fuel my interest in the project.


Olivia the Bearded Vultures death May 2012

Good News

As much as the death of Olivia threw me, the project has renewed my faith in humanity and things like this have happened:

bearded vulture lammergeier

Melanie Henson

I was contacted by a women, Melanie Henson, living in the UK who wanted to sell prints of a beautiful painting she had done to raise funding for the project. 10 points to Gryffindor!

Another exciting development is that Sonja Kruger, the head of the project, took me to watch a capture and tagging of the birds. I was thrilled to see my first bearded vulture and even managed to capture a photo of this moment. I distinctly remember hearing the quite whistle of the vultures as they flew overhead. This is the image I caught:


Copyright Olivia Earth

Nest Cam Project and Installation

A new wave of enthusiasm hit and the idea for installing NestCams came about. In 2015 I got off school and joined the team to fly up to the Drakensberg and install cameras into potential nests to gain more insight into the life of the bearded vulture and hopefully to capture images of a young fledgling. This project would not have been possible without the tireless work and involement from EVSolutions and Gavin Hough.

The first images we received from the NestCam can be seen below. This was a monumental occasion as it was a complete gamble as to where on all of the rocky escarpments a pair of bearded vultures might nest.

SUCCESS! Again this year, in 2018, the birds continue to breed in this nest! Keep your thumbs crossed as to whether we will see another year of fledglings!

This project continues to absorb me and I hope that in the next few years our data will let us know that our efforts will have been rewarded! For more information about the project visit: http://projectvulture.org.za/.

Let me know what projects you have worked on, the successes & failures, and your favourite memories.

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