Vulture Restaurants: Dining with Vultures
An Empty Place At The Table
At one time the vulture was one of the most ubiquitous species of the African plains, the harbinger of death, the clean up man of the veld, but most visible these days, it seems, only when it is not there.
There is nothing that quite captures the morbid quintessence of survival on the African plains quite like the image of a congregation of vultures tearing to shreds the rotting carcase of a wildebeest. From this it is easy to imagine various vulture species surviving mankind long into the post-nuclear era, but in truth vultures are just another of the many species falling behind in the race to survive the adaptation of Africa, and the world, to the needs of mankind.
Vultures, of which there are nine species listed in the SASOL Birds of Southern Africa, are one of those peculiar indicators that scientists look at to establish the general health of an environment. If vultures are visible in numbers, then all is well on the ground, if not, then grounds for concern exist. In recent years vulture populations have been falling dramatically, and not only in Africa. Countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal and Cambodia are all currently documenting dangerous declines in their vulture populations.
The reasons for this decline are varied. At the top of the list, as is the case with the decline of many species worldwide, is habitat loss. In south Africa this is acutely the case thanks to that country’s highly developed and widespread commercial agriculture industry. In the instance of plantation crops taking over the range of vultures this takes the simple form of a highly aerial species being unable to locate carcasses or animal detritus below tree canopies or within large acreages of maize and sugar. In other instances the removal of such primary feeders as lion and hyena from the habitat causes there to be less crushed bone in the diet of vultures, which results in calcium deficiencies that in turn is the cause of birth defects in chicks.
By far the worst killer of vultures, however, has been the poisoning of animal carcasses, both intentionally and unintentionally. Farmers have tended in the past to regard vultures as vermin, and have actively sought to eradicate them with the use of poisons. More recently, however, it has been the use of antibiotics and other drugs such as Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory painkiller widely used to treat sick cows, that cause kidney failure and visceral gout in many species of vulture, that has been the culprit.
During the 1960s, as the decline in vulture numbers began to become apparent, the notion of vulture restaurants came into vogue. This was, and is, a simple scheme to provide wild populations struggling to survive in commercial farming areas, or in other areas where individuals are falling victim to power lines, scarce resources and the harvesting of vulture body parts for mystic or witchcraft purposes, with a concentrated, poison free and reliable food source. An added advantage has been the regular concentration of local populations for the purpose of ringing and study.
There are now more than 250 designated vulture restaurants throughout South Africa. Here local farmers are encouraged to donate the carcasses of sick or dead animals to the cause of vulture survival, which is a huge advance on attitudes of say 20 years ago. However some scientists have tended to criticise this system as also being a contributing factor to the demise of the vulture, urging that farmers ensure that cattle are drug free before they are donated, and that any animals shot are not left riddled with lead pellets that would later find their way into the vulture diet.
Vulture restaurants have also in recent years become something of a tourist attraction. Perhaps the most high profile use of the system for conservation and tourism has been the site opened in June last year by the NamibRand Nature Reserve, a private conservancy situated on the eastern edge of the Namib Naukluft National Park in Namibia, and dedicated to the study and protection of the unique ecosystem of the Naukluft. Another is that of the Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST) situated near the town of Otjiwarongo in the Waterberg region of north/central Namibia, and dedicated largely to the protection and study of the Cape Griffon Vulture, currently Namibia’s most endangered species.
Support the Project
As a traveller in the region these programs are definitely deserving of your support, and for the first stop for any inquiries into what is current in the field of conservation, get in touch with the Southern Africa Ornithological Society at P.O. Box 84394 Greenside, Johannesburg, South Africa. This organisation does not yet have a web page, but the Zoological Society of South Africa does, and through their website and links you can connect up with just about any organisation in southern Africa deicated to wildlife study and conservation.
My contact for all things bird related in South Africa is local expert and birding guide Genie Retief who has a dedicated lodge at the Marloth Park Reserve just outside Kruger, and apart from being available for private or group tours, will happily answer any questions related to birding and birdlife conservation in South Africa. Her email number is: email@example.com
Photos: Thanks Flickr