As scavengers, vultures are synonymous with death, and seldom receive the same level of respect as other birds of prey. Indeed, being branded a “vulture” is the lowest form of insult, used to describe anyone gaining from someone else’s misfortune. This is unfortunate, as the misunderstood and much-maligned vulture is arguably the most important bird of prey of them all. Linda van den Heever, Vulture Project Manager at BirdLife South Africa explains.
They may not be easy on the eyes, but for nature’s ultimate scavengers beauty comes second to practicality. Featherless heads are easier to clean after a bloody meal, while flat feet ensure manoeuvrability while scrumming around carcasses. Broad, lengthy wings make soaring flight possible, allowing great distances to be covered at the expense of little energy. Widely spaced eyes with extremely sharp vision allow these soaring birds to keep a close eye on the movements of other vultures, and to spot a carcass from many kilometres away.
These are all handy adaptations, especially when it is not easy to predict when or where your next meal may leave this world. However, it is their ability to get rid of the dead and decomposing quickly and efficiently – an extremely important function in the overall ecology of a particular area – that makes vultures one of the cornerstone species of the animal world. The first consumers of a fresh carcass are the bacteria inside the animal’s digestive tract, quickly followed by invasions of bacteria from the surrounding soil. Carcass bacteria produce foul-smelling toxins (the putrid smell of death), not only to outcompete each other, but also to deter other animals from consuming their windfall. Fortunately, scavengers are not so easily deterred. Mammalian scavengers such as hyenas and jackals have an important role to play, ensuring that carcass nutrients are distributed back into the environment. However, when it comes to speed and efficiency, vultures reign supreme.
Their ability to consume large quantities of food in short spaces of time (they can consume up to 20 per cent of their body weight and still be able to fly) means that a cohort of vultures can strip a carcass the size of a wildebeest in less than 30 minutes. This has important implications for disease transmission, as a rotting carcass will have less time to foster bacteria that could potentially be harmful to humans, livestock, and wildlife. By competing with mammalian scavengers for food, vultures can also regulate their numbers, which can limit opportunities for the transmission of viral diseases such as canine distemper and rabies. Many vulture species, such as the Hooded Vultures of central Africa, are also instrumental in removing rotting organic waste; a vital service they provide at no cost to local governments.
Unfortunately, vultures have become victims of their own proclivities. By feeding on dead things, they frequently fall victim to poisons. Wanting to avoid the tell-tale signs of circling vultures, poachers lace carcasses of poached animals with poison, killing hundreds of birds at a time. Livestock farmers inadvertently kill vultures when they put out poison baits for “problem” animals such as jackal and caracal. Fragments of lead, imbedded in the carcasses of animals shot with lead ammunition, are fed to vulture chicks by their parents, arresting their development and hampering their ability to manufacture haemoglobin. Foraging vultures, intent on finding their next meal, frequently collide with or are electrocuted by electricity infrastructure. The list goes on.
It is inevitable then that Africa’s vulture populations have plummeted in recent decades. Of South Africa’s nine vulture species, four are now recognised as globally Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), including the once prolific Whitebacked Vulture. Sensing the urgency of the situation several NGOs and governmental organisations throughout southern Africa have stepped up their efforts to halt and reverse the declines.
The most notable development in recent years has been the introduction of Vulture Safe Zones, where owners of large tracts of land in areas that are key to vulture survival agree to manage their properties in ways that are safe for vultures. This includes, but is not limited to, sending staff for poison response training, protecting breeding vultures from disturbance, and using lead-free ammunition for hunting, culling and game management purposes. In collaboration with partner organisations Wildlife ACT, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the Endangered Wildlife Trust and Peace Parks Foundation, BirdLife South Africa has established Vulture Safe Zones in several regions in South Africa and Mozambique, with plans to expand the initiative significantly in coming years.
Saving southern Africa’s vultures will take a colossal, collaborative effort, but there is every reason to hope. Cape Vultures, previously listed as Endangered, have recovered sufficiently to be downlisted to Vulnerable in 2021. The species is not out of the woods yet, but it is stabilising. Whether the tides will turn for South Africa’s other vulture species remains to be seen. So, the next time you roll through the Kruger and spy a vulture, love it for what it does. They are fighting for their lives.
South Africa’s Vulture Species:
SPECIES RED LIST STATUS
White-backed Vulture Critically Endangered
Hooded Vulture Critically Endangered
White-headed Vulture Critically Endangered
Rüppell’s Vulture (Rare visitor) Critically Endangered
Bearded Vulture Critically Endangered (regionally)
Lappet-faced Vulture Endangered
Egyptian Vulture (Rare visitor) Endangered
Cape Vulture Vulnerable
Palm-nut Vulture Least concern
About Birdlife South Africa
BirdLife South Africa strives to conserve birds, their habitats and biodiversity through scientifically based programmes, through supporting the sustainable and equitable use of natural resources and by encouraging people to enjoy and value nature.
Community Bird Guides
Trained by BirdLife South Africa and supported through a partnership with Swarovski Optik, BirdLife South Africa’s community bird guides are some of the most treasured members of the birding community. These local experts are the birding authorities in their patches and many birders owe special lifers to these guides. If you are travelling to a new area, consider hiring the services of one of these guides. The guides provide improved security and valuable information on where elusive and special bird species may be found, and in some cases can gain you access to otherwise restricted locations. They are self-employed and free to set their own rates, but they are affordable and offer very competitive fees within the guiding industry. Should you be interested in supporting the Community Bird Guide Project through donations of funds or equipment, please email the Avitourism Project Manager, Andrew de Blocq: email@example.com.
Kruger Birding & Wildlife Challenge
Don’t miss the Kruger Birding & Wildlife Challenge, a fun fundraiser for the conservation of one of the world’s rarest birds, the Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail. The week-long event takes place from 12 to 19 February 2023 and is jointly hosted by BirdLife South Africa and Rockjumper Birding Tours.
*CONTACT: www.birdlife.org.za | firstname.lastname@example.org |+27 11 789 1122.
Top sighting Spots and tips
Grab your camera, bino’s and birding books and head out to tick two of the most popular and beautiful vultures off your list.
Top ID tip: When it comes to identifying Cape Vultures, it’s helpful to know the difference between young and adult birds. Juvenile birds are medium brown with paler streaks below – note the red patches on their breasts and necks. The wing and body feathers of adult birds are a very pale brown, the flight feathers and the tail are black, and the skin of their necks is a blue-grey colour. The eyes, which are dark in youngsters, turn honey-coloured with age.
Marakele National Park: At some 800 breeding pairs, this national park’s colony of Vulnerable Cape Vultures is not only one of the largest in the world, but also one of Marakele’s most popular visitor attractions. To watch the vultures glide and soar above the Waterberg, head up Lenong Drive to the Sentech Towers on top of the mountain. With a wingspan of almost 2.5m, these impressive raptors are big, bold, and absolutely beautiful.
CONTACT: +27 (0)14 777 6929/6928/6931
De Hoop Nature Reserve: From the De Hoop Collections Vulture Deck in the Potberg Mountain, you will have the opportunity to view these majestic birds up-close and personal, swooping, diving and circling in the air. This colony of about 200 vultures has grown from around 100 birds during the past decade thanks to some concerted conservation efforts by the local community and farmers.
CONTACT: +27 (0)21 422 4522 | email@example.com
Magaliesberg Meander: Take the Vulture Trail hiking trail in the Magaliesberg for some incredible sightings of the Vulnerable Cape Vulture. Nesting sites include the cliffs on the Olifants Nek cliffs and at Skeerpoort near Hartebeespoort Dam.
CONTACT: +27 82 453 8444 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve: The 18 000ha reserve situated to the southwest of Harrismith offers a variety of birdlife with close to 240 bird species. Linked with the Maloti Drakensberg Park, which incorporates a Cape Vulture breeding colony, this is a great spot for sightings.
CONTACT: +27 (0)58 622 3520/1093/3892
Top ID tip: Bearded Vultures sport a black mask and beard – quite noticeable on their white faces. Other than this striking feature, you can look for off-white feet, red and yellow eyes, a gingerbrown body, and dark brown wings and tail.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park: Golden Gate’s high mountains and open grasslands are home to hundreds of bird species and several birds of prey, including the Critically Endangered Bearded Vulture. With its feathers the same warm and earthy colours as the Maluti Mountains, this vulture almost becomes one with its picturesque surrounds. For a chance of close sightings, head to the purpose-built hide overlooking the vulture restaurant.
CONTACT: +27 (0)58 255 1000