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Vultures: a lion’s best friend?

In Zambia’s Kafue National Park, a novel system is using real-time vulture movement to protect the future of one of Africa’s most iconic creatures.

By analyzing the location information of multiple species such as vultures and lions, conservationists are better understanding and protecting both species. Photo courtesy Corinne Kendall with the North Carolina Zoo

One of the main and escalating threats facing Africa’s wild cats today is poison. Across the continent, legal, cheap, and readily available pesticides are a weapon of choice by some poachers and those who see these species as a threat to their cattle, livelihoods, and communities. Lacing a large carcass with these deadly chemicals can, for example, eliminate a whole pride of lions feeding on the dead animal. To keep poisoning from becoming a greater issue in Africa's third largest National Park, Kafue, and its surroundings, conservationists are turning to Africa’s vultures. These unlikely allies are helping to protect one of Africa’s most iconic species – lions.

At any given time of day in Zambia’s Kafue National Park, Xia Stevens can check her EarthRanger interface to see where several lion prides, collared by Panthera and Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) are roaming and spending their time. If they cross a park border on their way to a nearby community or remain inactive beyond a certain period, Stevens and DNPW are alerted. As Panthera’s Africa Coordinator for Conservation Technology, Stevens notes that leveraging technologies such as EarthRanger together with strong partnerships with African Parks, DNPW and other partners are already helping save lions in the park. While collared lions can provide key insights on where lions are, they may not provide the whole story when it comes to threats like poisoning and poaching. By analyzing the location information of multiple species, we can know more about animal behavior and interactions beyond just location.

A lion resting in Kafue National Park, Zambia. Photo courtesy Andrew Beck with African Parks

This is where vultures come in. While contaminated carcasses may be intended for lions and other predators, vultures have a unique and highly efficient ability to find carcasses. Their keen eyesight, soaring, and social foraging also mean they are often the main victims of these activities. So much so, that scientists estimate 90% of the vultures that die in Africa today can be attributed to poisoning in some form or another. That same social behavior that makes them such good scavengers, also places them at greater risk of mass poisoning. They congregate in large numbers at carcasses to feed and if that carcass is poisoned, hundreds can perish in just a few hours resulting in a steep decline in vulture populations. But what if the same ability to pinpoint carcasses combined with their grouping behavior leading to their vulnerability could also be the early warning system needed to protect vultures and other animals from poisonings and other poaching activities? It’s something Panthera and partners are testing thanks to a novel real-time analysis system.

At the heart of the system Panthera, DNPW and the North Carolina Zoo are testing a new tool in Kafue National Park and the surrounding region, arising from a partnership between EarthRanger, MoveApps, and the Zoo. Based on a successful system developed in Tanzania for similar work, this novel technique generates an automated real-time prioritized list of places that could indicate illegal activities such as poisoning and other illegal activities, based on tagged vulture movement. Today, Stevens and partners are notified of these locations through an instant alert in her EarthRanger interface, better enabling her to work with African Parks and DNPW to coordinate a response. 

“At 22,0000 square kilometers and set within an even bigger 66,000 square kilometer ecosystem, Kafue National Park is a vast, massive landscape such that the whole park cannot be covered with rangers at any one time,” said Stevens. “Adding these vultures with incredible vision that fly over vast sections inside and outside the park can truly add eyes in the sky to strengthen our impact by directing protection efforts in real-time on the ground.” 

But it wasn’t always that straightforward. Quickly identifying these key areas on a daily basis can be challenging. When done “by hand,” the process required ingesting the data, analyzing it, and then disseminating the locations to teams on the ground who can coordinate a response. To automate this tedious workflow and unlock the power of their data, North Carolina Zoo turned to the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior (MPI-AB) for help, with funding from Wildlife Protection Solutions. Tracking data are sent in near real-time to Movebank, a global database for animal tracking hosted by the institute. In a joint effort, the algorithm North Carolina Zoo had been using for work in Tanzania was integrated into MoveApps, an open-source and no-code data analysis platform developed by the MPI-AB to make sophisticated analytical tools accessible to conservationists and researchers everywhere (see recent paper in Movement Ecology). There, the data from Movebank are automatically analyzed once per day and results sent to the field team within their EarthRanger interface. What was once a two hour process to identify cluster locations has been reduced to an automated update that seamlessly comes into EarthRanger to guide patrol efforts along with other data sources. This process has improved the analysis of these data, accelerated response times, and enabled better protection for carnivores and vultures alike. 

How the cluster alerts look in EarthRanger. Photo courtesy North Carolina Zoo

“We are proud that MoveApps’ first use case of cluster detection has become so helpful for truly applied conservation,” says Andrea Kölzsch, project manager and scientist for MoveApps.

Because MoveApps and Movebank are available to researchers and conservation groups worldwide, the cluster workflow is easily shared and adapted to meet similar needs. In addition to Panthera, DNPW and partners using tagged vultures to identify potential “crime scenes” within Kafue National Park and surrounds, vultures are continuing to teach conservationists and researchers about their ecosystems. From uncovering wildlife corridors in Tanzania and Zambia to offering insights into the impact of new roads on a Costa Rican habitat, tagged vultures offer a host of conservation applications well beyond their important role as nature’s ultimate garbage disposer. In some cases, the data they are providing can also be used to detect disease outbreaks and to contain the spread, like in Tanzania

“Vultures’ social behaviors can provide unique insights into what is happening on the ground,” said Corinne Kendall of North Carolina Zoo. “Through this new tool, we will be able to take advantage of that information in real-time, further improving conservation outcomes.”

Through collaboration with conservationists, the Zambian government is making strides to restore one of Africa's biggest parks, Kafue National Park. Photo courtesy Frank Weitzer with African Parks

The application of this work, and visualizing the activity of one species to help conservationists intervene and protect another, begs the question of what new uses might come next. The system developed by North Carolina Zoo, MoveApps, and EarthRanger demonstrates the possibilities for conservation when technology is applied to longstanding and new challenges. Today, the same system being used in Kafue National Park is also being utilized to better understand the behaviors of other animals, including wild dogs, hyenas, elephants and pumas. Through this work, conservationists and biologists in any landscape can proactively safeguard threatened species by more effectively detecting specific behaviors based on movement patterns.

“Most people wouldn’t think you could use a bird to save our cats,” Stevens says. “But that’s what we’re doing in Kafue." 

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