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The Importance of Vultures

Vultures are often considered as some of the less attractive birds one can find in the bush. But, vultures are vital to the environment!

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White-backed vulture

Vultures are considered as some of the less attractive birds of prey one can find in the bush and their dynamics are hugely misunderstood. Vultures play a vital role in keeping the environment healthy as they clean up carcasses and prevent diseases from spreading. Most vulture species in South Africa are listed as endangered and it is of utmost importance to save these animals from extinction.

The Kruger National Park (KNP) is home to nine different vulture species, seven of these species are on the Red Data Book of Endangered Birds of South Africa (Barnes, 2002), this means that these vultures are likely to face extinction if nothing is done to conserve their existence. On Mjejane Game Reserve (MGR) we mostly observe the hooded vulture, lappet-faced vulture, white-backed vulture, cape vulture and when we are lucky enough, the white-headed vulture. Our lion pride treats us occasionally with a kill near the road and this gives us a chance to see the vultures in full force. The Egyptian vulture has been listed as ‘regionally extinct’ in South Africa and only a few individuals are spotted once in a while, mainly near Olifants area in KNP. The Bearded vulture only occurs in the Drakensberg area of South Africa and Lesotho. Vultures are faced with many threats such as poisoning from farmers, persecution, electrocution and collision with powerlines, drowning in farm reservoirs in drier parts of the country, shortage of safe food supplies and loss of suitable habitat.

Vultures are these incredible creatures with excellent eyesight, they can spot a carcass from kilometres away, it is said that they have eight times better eyesight than humans do. A vulture has two lenses that cover its eye, one is to see at a wider angle, like a fisheye and the other helps to magnify objects. On cold over-cast days, vultures spend most of their time in trees and not in the sky, this is because vultures normally use thermals, this helps to conserve energy while flying. One will often see while out on game drives in the early morning that vultures will still be resting in treetops, they are waiting for the Earth’s surface to heat up. Pockets of warm air rises and the vultures use this to become airborne, flapping their enormous wings uses a lot of energy, thus taking these thermals helps a great deal. Vultures can soar at altitudes of up to 12km, covering large areas at speeds of up to 80km/h. Most vultures lack feathers on their heads and necks, as they insert their heads into rotten carcasses all the fluids and rotten bits get stuck, this could cause infections if the head was to be covered in feathers. Contrary to popular belief, vultures are actually very clean animals and bathe regularly to avoid any health hazards.

When a carcass is spotted hundreds of vulture species will circle around the body before landing. When feeding, the vultures fall into a hierarchy, each species plays a role at the carcass. The white-backed vultures are normally the most abundant vulture species at a carcass and will devour everything from the inside out, the hooded vultures tend to go for the softer organs like the eyes or intestines. The Lappet-faced vulture is probably more important as they open carcasses if it has not been done by predators. Although it seems chaotic when looking at a vulture feeding frenzy, there is some sort of structure of who gets what and when. You will also notice that vultures have flat feet, unlike other raptors that have more curved talons, this is because they spend a lot of time on the ground when feeding off carcasses. Vultures have strong beaks that can tear through tough flesh, together with the strong beak, they also have serrated, rough tongues to pry smaller bits of meat off bones.

Vultures play a major role in the ecosystem as they clean up dead and decaying carcasses, this assists in controlling and preventing the spread of diseases. Unfortunately, vulture numbers have been declining over the last few decades because of a large number of threats. One of these threats are the illegal trade in vulture body parts for ‘traditional medicine’ as it is believed that vultures contain powers of premonition and foresight. Vulture skulls are used in ceremonies as it is believed that the skull can transfer powers to a person to see into the future, vulture feet it thought to bring good luck to a person as well. Some farmers within the country use poison as a means of controlling jackal or caracal numbers to avoid these predators from killing their livestock. As a scavenger, the vulture will eat the poisoned body of the deceased jackal and in turn, it will die as well, creating an evil cycle. Development is another threat as it causes vultures to lose their habitat and is responsible for many vulture deaths, such as vultures flying into power lines and other man-made objects. Without vultures the bush and all its creatures will be riddled with diseases and illnesses, a future without these scangers is an environmental hazard. There are 152 organisations that are involved with the conservation of vulture species, there are numerous projects up and running to save these birds from disappearing forever. Vulture Awareness Day is designated for 1 September, this day is to create awareness of how important it Is to save vultures because of the role they play in the environment. The Kruger has multiple research groups that monitor vulture populations in the Kruger and it is evident that their numbers are declining year by year.

Mjejane Game Reserve forms part of the vultures’ range, on a daily basis one will see vultures circling in the clear blue sky. Two hooded vulture nests have been recorded on the reserve, one of which is situated next to one of the private lodges. It is highly important to create a safe haven for vultures and to build up sound knowledge of their habits. Hopefully when in Mjejane next time the lions will be kind enough to make a kill to provide a close-up sighting of these fascinating birds.

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