Fight or flight? Raptor Rescue and the race against time for the Cape and White-backed Vulture

Laser sintered AM tracking device in the fight to save a species.

With vulture populations in decline, Raptor Rescue director Ben Hoffman uses a tracking device to respond quickly to emergencies. Design of the component posed ergonomic, weight and durability challenges that only DfAM and laser sintering technology could solve.

Akhani 3D design and manufacture devices that have seen significant improvements in performance, not only saving birds but also providing valuable insights into their behaviour.

“Not on our watch”, Ben Hoffman is philosophical about the vultures’ chances of long-term survival. As of 2013, estimates of Cape Vulture population size assume 9 400 mature individuals. For the most striking vulture of them all, the Bearded Vulture, things are far more critical, with only 350 remaining.

Both the Cape and White-backed Vulture populations are under severe pressure from poisoning. Flocks of birds are attracted by a long dead carcass tainted with a potato pesticide. The effects are quick and devastating, often killing dozens of birds in one sitting.

“Rapid response is essential. Getting there fast means we can prevent further deaths and even save some of the poisoned birds.” Ben is the director of Raptor Rescue, situated in Ashburton on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. His facility, and the adjacent African Raptor Centre, practice conservation through breeding, education, scientific rehabilitation and research.

Key is detecting when the vultures aren’t moving when they should be. The solution is a lightweight device attached to individual birds in populations across the country. Fitted with a solar panel and GPS technology, it tracks the vulture’s position and sounds the alarm when the device continually transmits from the same spot during active hours. The nearest response team moves in to investigate, often travelling great distances through rough terrain. Poorly funded and little recognised, the conservationists are driven by their purpose alone.

When closing in on the stranded marker, they find one of two things: A vulture that has collaborated with others to bite the device off, or the site of a poisoning. It is critical that sites are quickly contained to prevent the damage from spreading. A recent poisoning in Botswana claimed 537 vultures, with several critically endangered species among them. When located early, both the tainted carcass and the poisoned victims need to be cremated on site.

Ben Hoffman created early prototypes of the device using off-the-shelf plastic boxes fitted with modified car tracking devices, streamlined by hand using a penknife. These first crude attempts struggled to conform to the 5% ethical weight restriction and lasted only a few weeks. The search for new solutions began in earnest.

Ben sought out Akhani 3D in Howick, KwaZulu-Natal for assistance. There he found an ally in Bryan Bullock, the company’s head of design.

“When Ben first approached us, the brief was an ideal test case for additive manufacturing. The housing must be lightweight, tough and solve a number of form and function problems. As the internal components have gotten smaller through the years, so our design has improved with every iteration.”

Design of the finished item would have cost several multitudes more to produce traditionally because of the intricate shapes that additive manufacturing achieves. The edge of the device that sits against the bird is ergonomically shaped to reduce friction when the bird flies. The adjustable straps fit like a backpack, with a front clip that breaks by design after an average of 18 months, freeing the vulture from its research tenure.

The internal space is designed to fit the components in an optimal position, balancing the weight evenly and providing maximum exposure to sunlight. Even when components change, the device can be quickly modified to fit the latest upgrades.

Initially, the boxes were made from ABS, but the slightly porous nature of the material proved to be false economy, and today the components are printed in the new laser sintering machine using a water-resistant substrate.

“Partnering with Raptor Rescue has been exceptionally rewarding,” says David Bullock, Akhani 3D’s managing director. “We’re a family passionate about conservation, and contributing to the efforts to save these magnificent species demonstrates additive manufacturing’s potential to drive positive change.”

More than just a rapid response device, the GPS unit has provided a wealth of data on both vulture species. It revealed that the White-backed Vulture has a far greater range than previously thought. During the winter months, it migrates to the rainforests of Rwanda before dropping off the map for a month or two, returning early in spring.

For many raptor species, the pressures of climate change, habitat loss and a myriad of other threats are having an impact. For Ben Hoffmann, it’s a challenge that we must collectively fight to overcome. “The stakes are too high, these birds are too important. We need all the help we can get and technologies like additive manufacturing have a critical role to play.”

Consulting veterinarian, Dr Oliver Tatham and Ben Hoffman are now leaders in the field of African raptor veterinary and rehabilitation practice.

For further details contact Ben Hoffmann at 082 359 0900 or visit