Vulture culture

Vultures may not be to everybody’s taste, but these large scavenging raptors have some remarkable talents and are vital to the stability of Africa’s natural environment. Mike Unwin explains why

VultureCultureWe are friends,” chorus the vultures in Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book. “Friends to the bitter end.” Sadly, though, these birds find few friends elsewhere. As with hyenas, their association with death elicits fear and revulsion. This is a great shame, as few creatures are more fascinating – or important.

Vultures are effectively the hyenas of the skies, playing a vital ecological clean-up role by disposing of decomposing carcasses. And they are well equipped for the job: broad wings allow them to soar effortlessly for hours on end; acute eye sight enables them to locate their quarry from miles away; and long necks, powerful bills and potent stomach acids all help them deal with the most putrid carcasses.

When it comes to tracking down the dead or dying, few animals possess a more sensitive radar than vultures. While spiralling above the bush, they are looking not only for carcasses but also for clues in the behaviour of other animals on the ground, such as impala fleeing from wild dogs or hyenas approaching a lion kill. More than anything, they are watching other vultures. Birds dropping to the ground in one area will suck others out of the sky from miles around. This is why hundreds may appear within minutes, apparently from nowhere.

Admittedly, the friendship thing seems a little far-fetched when you watch the hissing, lunging squabbles of vultures at a carcass. In fact, there is a strict pecking order, both among individuals of different and the same species.

At a typical savannah gathering, for instance, the huge and aggressive lappet-faced vulture lords it over other species, using its powerful bill to open up a carcass. Smaller hooded vultures, by contrast, may move in only when the others have moved away, but then use their slimmer, more surgical bills to reach parts of the animal that escaped their larger cousins.

And while the whole idea of feeding from a decomposing body may seem a little squalid to those of a delicate disposition, vultures are far from filthy creatures. The naked heads of most species is an adaptation that allows them to poke around in the gore without fouling their feathers. And they are fastidiously clean birds, visiting water daily to drink and bathe.

Vultures live for a long time – sometimes up to 50 years. Pairs form lifelong bonds, producing one or, in some species, two chicks per year. Incubation, shared by both parents, takes 54 to 58 days. The youngsters fledge after about four months but could remain dependent upon their parents for a full year. Some species nest in tall trees; others on cliff ledges. A few, including cape vultures, form large colonies.

Today vultures need all the friends they can get. Most species are in steep decline across Africa. Direct threats range from power lines to persecution – as many as 86 dead birds have been recorded at a single poisoned carcass put out by farmers for jackals. Meanwhile the disappearance from many regions of game populations and predators is leaving them increasingly short of food.

In former times the birds received rather more respect: Nekhbet, the vulture goddess of ancient Egypt, was revered as a protector of royal children. And in the ancient sky burials of central Asia and parts of India – in which bodies were left out to be consumed by vultures – they enjoyed a sacred status. We can only hope the ‘bitter end’ for these impressive and useful creatures is a while away yet.

Vulture hotspots
You can see numerous vulture species in all large conservation areas that still harbour plentiful game. Keep an eye on the skies during the heat of the day and, when the weather is poor, scan the horizon for the birds hunched in treetops. A few smaller reserves, notably in South Africa, maintain ‘vulture restaurants’, where a supply of carcasses are left out to supplement the birds’ natural diet. Remember, whether you like them or not, vultures are often your best means of tracking down big cats and other predators. Top spots include:

1 Tanzania & Kenya: Serengeti National park and the Masai Mara
They follow the great migration, cleaning up what the larger predators leave behind. The annual crossing of the Mara River, when large numbers of wildebeest drown, provides perhaps the continent’s largest vulture feast.

2 Swaziland: Hlane Royal NP
This small reserve protects Africa’s southernmost breeding colony of white-backed vultures and receives regular visits from Cape vultures and other species.

3 South Africa: Drakensberg Mountains
In panoramic mountain reserves such as Giants Castle you can watch Cape vultures and lammergeiers (bearded vultures)visiting feeding stations.

4 The Gambia: The coast
Hooded vultures are common visitors to the villages and resorts that crowd the coastline, feeding on human refuse. Look out also for palm-nut vultures in the mangroves and palm groves.

5 Others: Botswana’s Okavango Delta and Chobe NP, Zimbabwe’s Hwange NP, South Africa’s Kruger Park and Zambia’s Luangwa Valley are among other well-known reserves that support substantial populations of vultures.