Natures Clean-up Crew and Anti-Poaching Patrollers under threat!

Can you guess who they are?

When it comes to African animals, the prehistoric rhino, the energetic wild dogs (known as Painted Wolves) and the majestic elephants are the endangered pillars of the bush-veld.  We all know that the rhino is in a precarious position; the western black rhino has been declared extinct, the northern white rhino only has 2 females left. Elephants are hunted for their precious ivory and the wild dog are the second most endangered carnivores in Africa.

There are, however, many less obvious animals that are currently endangered on our beautiful continent…

This particular animal that we take for granted belongs to the bird family. Considered a scavenger, forms part of nature’s vital clean-up crew as it feeds on the flesh of dead animals.

Have you guessed it yet?

It is the African White-Backed Vulture. With a wingspan of between 1.9 and 2.2 meters, this bird is taller than most humans. Their heads are black and they have long necks which at first glance may appear to be bald but are in fact covered with fine down feathers.  Their feathers or plumage are varying in shades of brown and cream which makes their white lower back stand out.

White-backed Vulture (c) Unknown

In the Selati Game Reserve, we often see them soaring high in the sky, looking like little specks. On cold mornings, we see them perched on the trees, waiting for the sun to rise. They wait for the right conditions so they can ride the thermals.

Vultures are not normally considered the most attractive of the bird kingdom. They are in fact rated in the ‘Ugly Five’ (similar to the Big Five that people come from all over the world to see). Why? because they are considered to be one of the ugliest animals in Africa.

In 2015 the ICUN listed them as critically endangered. To be honest I was shocked when I found out and it goes to show that you can’t take any animal that you see in the wild, for granted.

(c) Ben Coley

So why are they listed as critically endangered? In short like with most endangered species, humans are to blame.

Unfortunately, White Backed Vultures are the silent victims of wildlife poaching. You may be wondering why would anyone want to kill vultures? They have no precious assets to sell?

These magnificent birds play a role in anti-poaching. Poachers, after killing lions, elephants, rhino and so on, have realised that vultures give them away, alerting authorities of their illegal activities. This is because vultures fly over dead carcasses high in the sky, where poaching is taking place, alerting authorities who will go and investigate.

Vultures flying high in the sky, circling a dead carcass

Poachers now poison the carcass of the dead animal they have killed, so when the vultures fly down to feed on the kill, they are in fact they are being lured to their death. In 2012, in Zimbabwe, 191 vultures died after eating a poisoned elephant. In Mozambique, 87 vultures meet the same fate earlier this year.

In addition to poisoning, these vultures are victims of traditional medicines, declining food sources and electricity pylons. Unfortunately, vultures only lay one egg at a time which makes it that much harder for the species numbers to recover.

Besides being natures clean-up crew and anti-poaching alerts, why do vultures matter? Why do you think these underestimated creatures are so important? Let me share with you a case study in India.

The vultures were accidentally poisoned by an anti-inflammatory drug given to cattle causing their number to plummet.   Without vultures to eat dead cows, the number of feral dogs and rats have increased, as have cases of human disease. These new scavengers are now carriers of a variety pathogen which are easily passed onto people. An increase in feral dogs resulted in an increase of reported dog bites, so Rabies cases in humans rose. The rotting carcasses of cows were also reported to have contaminated drinking water.

Vultures on a dead carcass (c) Ben Coley

Need I say more?

So what does Selati do to help these vital animals? The reserve has provided a vulture restaurant. The smell and the sight of a vulture restaurant can at times be hard to handle, however; this provides us with the perfect opportunity to observe and learn about these birds up close. This complementary feeding provides vultures with a safe spot to eat and gives them poison free carcasses to enjoy. It also supports the vultures in times of food scarcity and when young birds fledge. Carcasses are only put down periodically, at most once a week to ensure that they don’t become dependent on this additional food source.

See video of a similar vulture restaurant in Zimbabwe.

Albert Einstein, once said, ‘Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.’   As we have so many incredible animals in South Africa to see and learn about, this shouldn’t be a difficult task.

In saying this, the next time you find yourself in the wild, give some due credit to the vultures, after all, they do much!