Saturday was International Vulture Awareness Day. Think about that for a second… Can you imagine a day like this existing 50 years ago?
An often misunderstood and maligned bird is finally being accorded the respect it deserves. In honour of this, Londolozi would like pay homage to these vitally important creatures, that are essential to all life in the beautiful bushveld ecosystem.
Vultures are part of the cleanup crew of the reserve. Along with hyenas, jackals and various other small denizens of the Lowveld, they rid the bush of any uneaten meat that is left by the larger carnivores. Certain bacteria thrive in these carcasses; if the vultures and their cohorts do not consume and eat the meat, an epidemic is virtually guaranteed. It can be fascinating watching nature’s food chain in action,. The lions make the kill and feed first. Scavengers like hyenas and vultures move in when the lions have had their fill, and while they make progress on the remaining scraps, maggots and smaller consumers get rid of the tiny morsels that have avoided the keen eyes of the larger animals.
These days it is hard to discuss any animal without touching on poaching. Sadly, not even vultures are immune to the wiles of poachers, and in recent times have been heavily persecuted. In certain cultures it is believed that consuming the brain of a vulture will bestow the gift of foresight on the individual, and as one can imagine, this is an ability that many would love to have. This belief, like so many others based on popular culture rather than fact, has been scientifically dismissed. However, vultures are still being poisoned, with detrimental knock-on effects on the hundreds of other species that share the same environment. We need to make everyone aware of the importance of these magnificent birds.
At Londolozi, the white-backed and hooded vultures are by far the most successful. The white headed, Cape and lappet-faced vultures aren’t as common here, but are also seen on occasion. One will often encounter the first two species on a morning drive perched on a dead tree, waiting for pockets of hot air to form as the sun’s rays warm up the earth. The formation of these thermals is the vulture’s cue to being scouring an area to gauge whether a dramatic event in the form of a kill or death occurred the night before. These magnificent birds have the most incredible eyesight. They are able to read the headlines on a newspaper from a kilometre away!
Wily birds, they not only scan the ground for a potential meal, but also watch each other. If one vulture sees another group descending a few kilometres away, it will assume that there is a food source there and will immediately head in that direction. It has been shown that vultures can resolve an object only 12cm wide from two kilometres distance, so imagine how easy it would be to see another vulture – whose wingspan can easily exceed two metres – from ten kilometres away! This is why when a predator makes a kill during daylight hours, an empty sky can be filled with vultures in mere minutes, and why predators are so keen to get their kills into cover; vultures descending can attract unwanted attention from rival predators, not just other vultures.
Cheetahs in particular get pressured off kills by vultures, as this video shows:
Hooded vultures are often the first to locate kills but the last to feed, owing to their small beaks and stature.[
Vultures can and do hunt for themselves, however it isn’t common behaviour.
I was once lucky enough to witness a white-backed vulture hunt and kill an impala lamb. We set out on a morning game drive and noticed a soaring vulture very early on, which I found quite odd, as it is usually only a bit later in the day that they get going. We watched the vulture as it slowly made its way towards a herd of impala. Suddenly its whole demeanour changed. It honed in on one of the impala lambs, swooped down and snatched it, it’s sharp talons killing the lamb almost instantly. The herd of impala was as flabbergasted as us! Up to that stage I was a firm believer that vultures only scavenged. Opportunism, it seems, is the name of the game in the bush.
A Marabou stork sits atop a wake of vultures. Both species will scavenge, and in this case there was an impala lamb carcass nearby that attracted their attention. The lamb appeared to have died of natural causes, and because the mother was nowhere to be seen, we think perhaps she had been killed by a predator and the little one had starved to death. A common sight near the scene of a kill. White-backed vultures and a lone marabou stork (also a scavenger) adorn a dead tree. Old skeletons of trees like this one, although often adding to the macabre image of vultures, are generally the only trees that can accommodate such large birds.
Watch this incredible video of two paragliders having a life-changing experience as they go flying with the endangered Cape Vulture:
For many people, the presence of a vulture is reminiscent to that of a crow. It signifies death or something that is about to die. Quite contrary to this, I believe it indicates life. “The circle of life” has become a cliched saying in many fields, yet it is highly pertinent in ours; without the death of certain animals, new life would be impossible, and in many ways, vultures are the embodiment of that. We should treasure these astonishing birds. We should educate the world about how much nature needs them. Let us give them the recognition they deserve, for they too are part of our beautiful and irreplaceable natural heritage.
Written by Werner Breedt, Londolozi Ranger