A lappet-faced vulture and marabou stork fight over a prime piece of meat
Driving through the tree line of a prominent island in the Okavango, the scenery suddenly opens up as we enter Paradise Plains. Looking ahead we are taken aback by a large number of birds all over the trees. We look up and dozens more of these birds thermal above… vultures!
We are staggered by the large gathering of vultures in the area and realise something must be going on… we decide there must be something dead in the area.
There is an excitement as we drive around slowly, discussing what is going on while we look for any further signs that could lead us to a possible kill in the area. We see nothing but all these birds convince us there is more going on so we switch off and listen. Suddenly a growl alerts us to a predator in the area; it seems to be coming from off to our left so we cross an open plain and drive around a blueblush thicket where we find four fat lions in the vicinity of a dead buffalo. One remains close to the carcass and there are also two jackals and a hyaena in the area. But it is the gathering vultures that now capture our attention… we end up watching this sighting for hours.
White-backed Vultures patiently wait for space at a carcass (note the tagged individual)
We notice there are many species of vultures here… a few hooded vultures skulk about on the ground close to the lions. Their smaller size makes them quick and nimble and they are relative experts at surviving being chased by lions, or any of the predators for that matter. This is the smallest of southern Africa’s vultures and when you spot them in the bush their presence often indicates there is a predator close by (they will even feed on the faeces of lions and wild dogs). If any opportunity comes up they are quick at seizing the chance for a piece of meat and we watch as the bloated lions chase them off when they get too near to the carcass.
Two hooded vultures stand back as the larger white-backed vultures dominate at a carcass
The day is really heating up and even more vultures descend into the area. Across from us, in a short-grass section of the floodplain, we watch as more than a hundred white-backed vultures now stand tightly packed slowly inching forward anticipating the last lion’s departure. We use our binoculars to get a closer look and notice that one of the birds has a distinct pale eye. That feature combined with one or two others leads us to realise that we have a Cape Vulture here too. With the temperature now pushing towards 40 degrees the last lioness looks like she is about to go and find some shade. She does just that and there is a sudden flurry of activity as vultures start hording in. The remaining lioness gives one last half-hearted chase sending the vultures scattering before she joins the other in the deep shade of a jackalberry… and the vulture feeding frenzy begins!
Two white-backed vultures scrap at a wildebeest carcass close to Kalahari Plains Camp
The white-backed vultures dominate in number and amazingly cover the carcass a few birds deep! We notice another species – a beautiful white-headed vulture makes its way to the periphery and finds some stomach contents and quickly makes a meal of that. And then suddenly a huge bird lands and with a few quick hops it jumps up into the mass of vultures, somehow landing on the rib cage. It opens its wings asserting its dominance – this is the magnificent lappet-faced vulture, so big that all the other vultures give it the space it needs and choose to spat with one another rather than take on this formidable raptor… an hour later and there is not a bird in sight – just the horns and skeleton of a creature that was alive less than 24 hours earlier. This was a sighting to remember!
Scenes like this play out daily across the African bush and those who have had the privilege to watch such interactions know just how special they are. But can you imagine the African savanna without vultures? It is a terrible thought… it would be devastating. Even if all their ecological functions were not vital it would be a devastating day to not be able to see scenes play out like this anymore. While the world hears of the demise of elephant and rhino, Africa’s vulture population is silently going extinct.
They are scavengers, they don’t have a large fan base, they are not the big cats we can relate to, and mystery and fear surrounds them for many people. You may ask how are they going extinct or even how we can say they are going extinct.
To put into perspective how hard it is to conserve vultures, many have been tagged and quite a number fitted with satellite transmitters as the first notable factor is the huge area they travel. A lappet-faced vulture was recorded flying across Namibia in two days. That is an incredible 2,000 km in 48 hours for these cross-country travelers. This sort of movement makes conserving them very tricky as even one poisoned carcass can kill off a few hundred birds at a time. Immediately you realise that if there are huge vulture losses in certain areas, how do you protect them on a larger scale?
There are at least 5 main reasons why Africa’s vulture species are being decimated
1) Deliberately poisoned
We are recording many incidents where elephant poachers will deliberately lace an elephant carcass (that they have killed for its ivory) with a carbonate poison. This is done so that the fast-acting poison (also locally called ‘two-step’ for obvious reasons) can kill the birds before they take off and alert authorities to the whereabouts of a poached elephant. This happens in almost all areas with elephants across Africa. On a regional scale it has been reported in the Kwando system where in 2012/3 almost 1,000 birds were poisoned this way, including over 500 in one incident of three poached elephants.
2) Poisoned – but not as the target species
This is a really sad situation where cattle farmers will lace carcasses of their livestock that have already been killed by predators, usually lions. They try to target the predators but of course any scavenger dies too. An incident like this happened outside Maun recently where we lost 102 vultures in this way.
3) Medicinal Value
Certain individuals in parts of Africa usually associated with witch-doctor medicine – sometimes called sangomas in South Africa – will purposely kill vultures for their ‘medicinal’ uses.
4) Power line and wind farm collisions – and poisoning accusations as a result
Vultures often collide with cross-country powerlines and often when this happens they do not die. If found they can sometimes be rehabilitated, as regularly happens at VulPro, a South African organisation that does excellent work to save vultures.
Then with the sudden growth in alternative power sources in some countries, vultures stand a risk of colliding with the massive turbines of the vast wind farms. Fortunately in South Africa, for example, an Environmental Impact Assessment is a necessary step in approval for wind farming, as many of these are in areas where vultures roost or breed. This has caused some projects to be halted; coincidentally there have been subsequent poisoning events within these colonies that beg questions as to who is suddenly poisoning the birds and for what reason?
5) Lead ingestion from carcasses
This reason is added because studies have shown high lead levels found in many of the tested vultures in Southern Africa. This has a hugely negative impact on biological processes within the birds and can lead to illness and mortality. Lead can be ingested from gunshot wounds and is another negative spin-off of hunting and poaching.
A recent incident where more than 100 vultures were poisoned by a carcass outside of Maun – the poison was meant to target lions that killed two cows. We burnt them all to rid the scene of any residual poison.
What can be done? While it is extremely difficult to police those who poison carcasses to intentionally kill vultures, the best thing right now is to focus on those people who kill vultures unintentionally. A starting point is to create awareness. Right now when it comes to human-wildlife issues, it is sadly always the wildlife that comes second. We need to come up with solutions to stop Africa’s vultures going the way India’s have gone – to near extinction. One solution that has undoubtedly helped is the opening of ‘vulture restaurants’ – places where humans leave out carcasses to attract vultures and give them a guaranteed safe zone outside of National Parks and other protected reserves. These have been hugely successful with a number of them now in place across different countries.
How can you help?
If you are anywhere in Africa and come across a tagged vulture, if possible photograph it, GPS its location and report it (a little bit of research should find the relative authority to report it too). And if not, any vulture person (contact info below) can assist in connecting you with vulture conservationists in other countries.
If you see a tagged vulture in the following countries please report it accordingly:
Botswana: Pete Hancock @ firstname.lastname@example.org or Beckie Garbett @ email@example.com
South Africa: Kerri Wolter (+27 82 8085113). Also her Facebook page VulPro (https://www.facebook.com/VulProAfrica/?fref=ts) – follow the links to report a tag.
Namibia: Andre Botha @ firstname.lastname@example.org
A wing-tagged vulture
Still some positive signs
In the right areas of southern Africa it is still possible to see a hundred or more vultures feeding off the remains of a carcass. For now we are still blessed with such sightings in many protected areas; in fact, as recently as August 2016, more than 170 vultures were spotted along the Savute Channel coming down for a drink and to clean themselves in the fresh flow.
Some vultures perch on a branch along the Chobe floodplain – one of the last strongholds for good concentrations of vultures
Rare sighting – Egyptian vulture at Kalahari Plains
In February 2013 a juvenile Egyptian vulture suddenly arrived at the waterhole in front of Kalahari Plains Camp. A few lucky people managed to see this incredibly rare bird – one that is top of the wish lists of many keen birders – in southern Africa.
Images and text by Nic Proust