Vultures: cute and cuddly they are not, but they need protection

Sally Wynn-Pitman • 30 October 2016

Vultures may not be to everyone’s taste (so to speak).    Like hyenas, they are scavengers, and so get bad press.  But actually, they are vital to ensuring the on-going health of wild ecosystems.  

The stomach acid of vultures is exceptionally corrosive, allowing it to safely digest putrid carcasses infected with various types of bacteria (e.g. botulinum toxin, hog cholera bacteria, and anthrax bacteria) that are lethal to others.   Their role is therefore doubly important in the wild.  They are not only Nature’s cleaners – tidying up all the left-overs – but also act as sanitisers of the wild – preventing the spread of disease.

However, in recent years, vultures have rapidly become one of the most threatened families of birds on the planet, according to Birdlife International.   A recent catastrophic decline of them in Asia is due to their poisoning from wide use of the anti-anti-inflammatory drug, Diclofenac, to treat cattle.  This drug is lethal to vultures, so when the cattle die, the birds feeding on them die too.  And the landscape is left littered with putrid carcasses. 

A similar fate is facing European vultures, unless farmers can be persuaded by conservation organisations like BirdLife to use alternative, less harmful drugs. 

At the same time, vulture populations worldwide are dwindling due to a variety of human-created issues, including electrocution by power lines, loss of food supply through increasing human populations and habitat loss, poisoning (deliberate or accidental) from veterinary and agricultural chemicals and from cyanide (used in the mining industry),  and the use of their parts for traditional medicines. 

Of 11 vulture species found in Africa, seven (including five of the six species endemic to Africa) are listed as globally threatened. Worryingly, five of these species joined the Red List of threatened species only in the last seven years.

In Zimbabwe, vultures have special protection under the sixth schedule of the Parks and Wildlife Act – it is illegal to kill a vulture, even accidentally.  However, with the increased poaching of wildlife across the country’s national parks and conservancies, poachers are now resorting to such poisons to target large prey like elephants for their ivory.  This not only kills many other wild animal species (waterholes are often poisoned), but also results in vultures dying in large numbers locally after feeding on the carcasses.    In some case, vultures are specifically being targeted by poachers who want to get rid of them because their presence attracts the authorities to their kill.

Zimbabwe is lucky to have six main vulture species (see above).   The commonest is the White-backed Vulture (1).  However, it is listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as Critically Endangered, along with the White-headed (2) and Hooded Vulture (3).   The Lappet-faced (4) and Cape Vulture (5) are categorised as Endangered, while the Palmnut Vulture (6), being very habitat-specific, is vulnerable to destruction of its palm habitats.  

Given that vultures are late maturing birds, and that they lay only two eggs every four years, the impact of poisoning is quite catastrophic.

“In a single poisoning incident,  tens of thousands of vultures can be killed,” says Julia Pierini of Birdlife Zimbabwe.

Given this threat, Birdlife Zimbabwe and other conservation organisations in Southern Africa  are trying to assist with vulture research, identification, education and conservation.  

There are also several Vulture Rehabilitation Centres in the region, where young or wounded birds are looked after and treated until they are able to be returned to the wild.   Some of these birds are “tagged” for research purposes.   Specially-designed  bright-coloured discs  with a clearly marked individual number large enough to be seen at a reasonable distance with binoculars, are attached to the wings or tail of the bird prior to its release.   Individual birds can then be clearly identified (and hopefully photographed) by birders, safari guides, tourists and enthusiasts, who can report back the sightings to the researchers.  This provides extremely valuable information on vulture behaviour, numbers and movement patterns, thereby assisting with the long-term conservation of this most important bird family. 


VULTURE ‘RESTAURANTS’
The tourism industry is also doing its bit for vulture conservation.  Some hotels have created special “Vulture Restaurants” -  feeding posts where fresh meat is regularly provided (usually leftover scraps and bones).  Visitors are treated to the spectacular sight of hundreds of vultures swooping down to feed.    This not only provides  a useful source of food and help to support vulture populations, it is also a great opportunity to educate visitors about vulture conservation and to monitor the numbers of vultures and detect any sudden declines that might indicate poisoning events or other threats.

Victoria Falls Safari Lodge offers a free “Vulture Culture” activity every afternoon at 1p.m.  This appeals to all age groups.  It begins on a deck beneath Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, with a briefing about the ecological importance of vultures and the plight they are facing, before guests take a short walk down a bush path to a specially-constructed hide to view the vultures feeding.

A  TALE OF TWO TAGS
At RIFA Conservation Education Camp on the Zambezi River, just upstream from the border town of Chirundu, schoolchildren and their teachers learn about all aspects of the wilderness.   About 30 different schools (both urban and rural from a variety of backgrounds) have participated in this programme which has been running since the 1980s.

Each group spends at week at the camp, and part of their biology learning includes the dissection of an impala antelope and examination of its anatomy.  The remains of the animal are then returned to the ecosystem by being provided as a “Vulture Feast”.    The schools and RIFA staff record the numbers and species of vulture that descend to feed on the remains, as well as the specific behaviours of each species at the carcass site.  Their carefully-recorded research findings over the past 26 years are proving invaluable to vulture conservationists and researchers. 

Imagine the excitement of two separate groups of young RIFA researchers when on two occasions, a single vulture carrying bright yellow “tags” on its wings appeared at the “Vulture Feast”!   

The first one arrived on 14th June 2016, and was sighted by students from Belvedere Technical Teachers College.  Its tag showed the number 126.  This was recorded, but unfortunately not photographed.   

The tag number was traced back to the Vulpro Rehabilitation Centre near Hartebeestpoort Dam north of Pretoria, in South Africa (see map).  Maggie from Vulpro responded:   “126 is in fact a Cape Vulture.  He was rehabilitated by us as a young inexperienced fledgling early this year. He was found grounded under dense cover, unable to fly out. We released him on the 4th of February 2016 and he was seen regularly at our vulture restaurant until March. He has also been spotted in Zimbabwe at Humani Ranch(in the Save Valley Conservancy , SE Zimbabwe) in May.”

Later, on 13th September 2016,  another tagged vulture with the identification number w301 attended the Vulture Feast and was watched by an excited group of children from Lilfordia School. This time, some excellent photos were taken of this bird eating on an impala carcass with 64 other vultures.   

The birds devoured the whole 48kg carcass in 3 minutes!    Tracing back revealed that this, too, was a young Cape Vulture.  It was tagged as a youngster on the nest at Dronfield Nature Reserve in Kimberley, South Africa (see map) on 11th October 2015.

In both cases, the tagged birds were sighted at RIFA when about a year old.  It is extremely interesting to see how far they had come from their original location.   It is also interesting to note that immature Cape Vultures of this age are virtually indistinguishable in appearance to adult White-backed Vultures (although the differences become more apparent as the birds mature).  

The sightings of tagged vultures provide valuable information about their ranging activity, and it is hoped that more such sightings will come from RIFA and from the feeding sites at Victoria Falls.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU SEE A TAGGED VULTURE
• Note the position of the tag(s), its number (code) and colour. 
• Note its location (GPS if possible).
• Note the date sighted.
• Take a clear photograph showing the tag(s) and number(s) (if possible).   If the number isn't visible the colour is fine - any info helps.
• Record the bird’s activity. 
• If possible identify the vulture species.
• Report the sighting and send images to VULPRO (www.vulpro.com)  and Birdlife Zimbabwe.

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