REST’s number one aim in being a good wildlife center is to practice good conservation first. Founder, Maria Diekmann feels strongly that although research and education are key, conservation of a species must take priority. Extinction makes all other aspects irrelevant to survival. Of course, research and education benefit from such efforts.
With this in mind, REST was the first in Africa to fit a satellite tracking unit on a vulture in 2004. From there, RESTs satellite successes grew to eventually having tracking on 6 Cape Griffons and 1 suspected hybrid.
This was all done since Namibia’s last Cape Griffon vultures were going extinct due to a number of issues including;
Water reservoir drownings
Trade from traditional healers
Since then, many organizations have developed similar projects and we are now able to form combine the information in informal working groups and formal scientific research papers.
Through the exposure of the issue, more parties began supporting the effort and the population was slowly built up with some translocations of birds from South Africa. Breeding seemed to start back on the Waterberg Plateau cliffs and we thought success within our reach.
Then about 6 years ago, REST noticed a serious decline in the number of birds visiting our long-running weekly feeding site. The drop was at first attributed to building and having moved to a new home, but it soon became apparent there was a massive decline. After a number of high profile poisoning events around Southern Africa, researchers had to admit that elephant and rhino poachers had gotten a jump on us with poachers baiting large carcasses after removing ivory or horn in order to directly kill any vultures that would land, eat and then fly up in large numbers on the next circling thermals (gusts of wind) thus giving away the position of the dead animal.
It is believed we have now experienced one of the most massive declines of any species with as much as 50-80% of all southern African vultures having died due to these practices. REST believes that Namibia and the entire southern African region have already begun to see the effects of this decimation. Vultures having been proven to be immune to diseases like anthrax, botulism and rabies seem to be more inhibitors of disease spreading than actually spreading it themselves. Thus we must begin to seriously question what we are going to do about this far-reaching problem. Anthrax has historically occurred in Etosha National Park and the far north. Can we as Namibians afford financially, environmentally and ethically to continue to put this problem on a back burner when it could eventually affect our tourism (decreasing animal populations in wild areas), our stock farming (diseases spreading from wild to domestic animals) and our human population (all of these diseases can affect human health and there is no preventive immunisation again anthrax)?
In 2015, most African vultures species were upgraded from Vulnerable/ Endangered to Critically Endangered by the IUCN in recognition of this crisis. Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) in conjunction with the Namibian Chamber of Environment has formed a stakeholder group to see what solutions can be found to not only mitigate the poison problems but also begin to slowly re-establishing vulture populations.
The Cape pangolin is one of 8 pangolin species found worldwide, and the only one that can live in arid conditions. Pangolins are now labeled as the world’s most trafficked mammal. This is the worst label a species can receive. Ironically, it may be the saving grace for these shy elusive creatures. Until that label, so little was known about pangolins that most of the world didn’t know of their plight simply because they didn’t know about pangolins in general.
REST along with colleagues in Zimbabwe and Vietnam suddenly found themselves in a position to increase the profile of pangolins because we were part of a small group who was managing successfully to raise and rehabilitate them. Pangolins are by far one of the hardest animals to study or rehabilitate as they come in very weak or injured after confiscation from poachers. As pictures and videos of these amazing creatures started entering the mainstream social and traditional media, the public fell in love with an animal often described as looking like a pinecone.
At the same time that the profile was increasing, illegal trade regulators were getting large financial incentives to stop shipments focusing on ivory and rhino horn. Surprising us all, incredibly large numbers of pangolin scales were found instead. So then we knew the problem, increased awareness and funding, and could begin to increase research and look for social solutions.
Pangolins are highly sought after for their traditional values and consumed as bushmeat or exotic meat. The primary market is in Asia, but numbers of all eight species (4 Asian; 4 African) are dropping rapidly as poachers extend their reach from Asia to Africa. In 2014, an estimated two million pangolins from Africa were confiscated from Asian ports and most believe that this represents only a small portion of the illegal trade. All pangolin species are listed under Appendix I of CITES as of October 2016. The Cape pangolin is currently listed as Vulnerable (as of 2014) by IUCN but is almost guaranteed to be upgraded to Endangered or Critically Endangered once more research has been done into massive recent declines. Before 2014, the species was listed as Least Concern. Besides trade, pangolins in Namibia are faced with habitat loss and electric fences are a major cause of pangolin deaths.
Namibia has gained world recognition due to 2 very special babies that came into the REST center. The first, Katiti provided the first public pictures in the world of a mother pangolin with her baby as she gave birth at REST immediately after coming in off the black market. After over 3 years of preparation, Katiti was successfully released back in the wild. Next came Honeybun, a baby also confiscated from poachers. She has become the poster pangolin for Africa and has recently shared stardom with one of China’s most famous women – actress and model Angela baby in a WILDaid campaign clip that attracted 25 million viewers in the first 24 hours of release. HB will soon feature on the first wildlife documentary focused solely on pangolins. This has all been possible as she is believed to be the only African pangolin in the world that has no fear of humans since raised by them but forages naturally on her own in the wild. Dedicated REST scientists follow her every day without disturbing her natural behavior while learning essential facts about diet, territory, other species interaction etc. Come rain or shine, Christmas or birthdays, one of REST’s pangolin staff is busy in the field.
Frogs, Snakes & Dik Dik
Of the remaining “Forgotten 5”, frogs worldwide have come close to extinction in many cases due to the disease chytridiomycosis. REST hopes in the next few years to be able to focus again on the spotted rubber frog, listed as Namibia’s least known frog. In addition, we hope to fit trackers onto Dik Dik to see if the myths about their strong partnerships are true. Lastly, we would love to work with snake specialists in order to track the little known Dwarf python, which is often smuggled for the illegal captive breeding trade.
VULTURE FRIENDLY FARMS
Farmers who embrace the discontinuation of poison use on their farms and adopt other alternatives to protect their livestock are being awarded a beautifully designed sign to be posted on the landowners’ gate to demonstrate to the community that they practice ‘vulture friendly’ land management. These attractive and eye catching signs are sponsored by the Global Environmental Fund of the UNDP.