The Demise of the Vulture?
I feel like I am a stuck record. I pull alongside one of the great creatures of the bushveld and I find myself saying once again, “Unfortunately, we have seen an alarming decrease in the number of this species”.
We are living in an age where the importance of protecting our environment and ecosystems is becoming evermore critical.
Vultures are one of the key species in recognising the state of our ecosystems and with the white-backed vulture, the most common species in this area, being classified as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN (The International Union for Conservation of Nature), there is reason for concern.
One of the most important benefits of vultures in an ecosystem is to ‘clean up.’ Being scavengers they leave noting to waste. This reduces the risk of disease and and infections which could be detrimental for other wildlife species. For us rangers, circling vultures usually send through a spike of adrenalin as we race to explore the area in hope of finding a pride of lion on a kill while the patient vultures wait their turn.
Morning light catches a wake of vultures as they patiently waiting for lions to leave a kill site.
A hooded vulture peers below as a young female leopard struggles to hold onto her kill.
Reasons for Concern
Vultures generally have an unfair reputation, somewhat similar to the spotted hyena as dirty, cruel and ugly creatures. Even their collective noun, a ‘wake of vultures’ sends an ominous message. This is possibly one of the reasons their decrease in numbers has not been given the same attention as other species. The drop in their numbers is not just a local problem, and vulture populations on a global scale are on a serious decline with electrocutions and poisoning being key reasons for their demise.
I have been speaking to Kerri Woltur of Vulpro, a Vulture Programme established in 2007 that focuses on research, education and breeding projects with particular focus on the Cape vulture, which is the most vulnerable species in Southern Africa. The Cape vulture has a breeding population of only 3700 in South Africa and is extinct as a breeding species in Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Namibia. Their website is well worth a visit. Kerri explained the following:
“Poisoning of vultures is on the increase and has become an African crisis. Poached animals are being laced with poisons to directly get rid of vultures as the ‘indicators’ to a poached and/or dead animal and thus, they are not favourably seen in the poaching communities. Over and above that, poachers are now seeing financial gain for each dead vulture and the heads of poisoned vultures are cut off and now sold for witchcraft as vultures are believed to be clairvoyant. Putting all of this together and the fate of our vultures in Africa lies in a very precarious position with Africa being on the verge of a VULTURE CRISIS and it is my suspicion that things are going to get much worse before they improve. Government and relevant authorities will unfortunately wake up when it’s too late and when our wildlife has reduced significantly to affect our tourism which intern affects our economy. As it has already been said, vultures reduce the spread of diseases and without these scavengers, our wildlife and livestock are easy targets for infectious diseases to spread and create havoc in our environment.”
Vultures are often seen in dead trees as they are easier to land in for a bird of this size
Two white-backed vultures silhouetted in a Marula tree with winter mist rising out of the Sand River
It is a scary thought! While game reserves like Londolozi may be a protected environment, birdlife is not confined to the reserves and when travelling outside the reserve, birds such as vultures run into danger. Current projects in the Kruger area are underway and led by Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) who have tag and monitor movement and population numbers in the Kruger/Greater-Kruger area. The one vulture photographed in this blog has a tag and is part of this project, which was very encouraging to see.
A tagged White-backed Vulture, part of EWT’s Sasol Vulture Monitoring Project
Opportunistic vultures finishing off a wildebeest carcass. There were no other predators around and no one is sure how the wildebeest died but the vultures make sure to clean up what is left
Our ecosystems are perfectly linked with each species being a vital link in this chain. These systems are paramount to the survival of not only the wildlife of our earth but the human species as well.
Written and Photographed by : Andrea Campbell
Did you know?
The first Saturday in September each year is International Vulture Awareness Day. On this day, participating organisations carry out activities that highlight vulture conservation and awareness. International Vulture Awareness Day will take place on 6 September 2014.