The Vulture Culture Experience

The sky is hazy, the day is heating up. Circling vultures and marabou storks have begun to gather. As time wears on more birds begin to arrive, circling lower and closer to the area which will soon provide them with a daily reward. As 1 pm approaches hooded and white-backed vultures begin to land in the trees close by, anywhere that will provide them with a good vantage point from which to observe the preparations. They watch eagerly as the presenter Moses arrives and begins to hose down the area to reduce dust and provide water. The arrival of tourists signals that the feast is getting closer. The birds move in jostling and squabbling for a good seat at the buffet, a preview of the table manners the waiting tourists are about to witness. The birds are about to have lunch at the vulture restaurant at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge.

A white-backed vulture and hooded vulture landingAlthough the vultures are regular guests, it is obvious that the birds remain very fearful of humans. Despite their eagerness, they wait nervously while Moses explains the plight of these endangered birds, the threats to their existence, and the consequences of losing these amazing creatures that are responsible for cleaning up 70% of the carrion in Africa, keeping the environment clean and recycling nutrients. At last, Moses opens the bags of meat scraps, bones, and a large frozen ball of meat trimmings from the hotel kitchen. Still, they hold back until he has moved away to a safe distance. As he clears the feeding ground the birds descend in a feeding frenzy that is a sight to behold. Tearing at the meat ball, swallowing down strips of meat torn from the bones and fighting amongst themselves for position, the food disappears in a remarkably short amount of time. As a vulture meal goes, the feeding behaviour at the vulture restaurant is far less gruesome than at a normal kill where birds can be shoulder deep in bloody carcasses. It is not hard to understand why vultures are considered greedy and disgusting.

White-backed vultures feeding at the vulture restaurant

The feed is over, stragglers pick at the little that remains. The birds are hot due to the frenzied activity in the midday sun. The bare heads of the hooded vultures that were pinkish white when they arrived are now bright pink, an effect of heat and agitation. The birds begin to drink to wash down the food and cool themselves, ever mindful of the proximity of the tourists. Moses continues to talk about the birds and encourage visitors to spread awareness of the rapid decline of vulture species. It is obvious that he is passionate about these birds.

Hooded vultures drinking after a feedWhite-backed vultures with a hooded vulture on the far right

The Status of African Vulture Species

Hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus)

Hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus) Critically Endangered

White-backed vulture (Gyps africanus)

White-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) Critically Endangered

Vulture numbers are plummeting with seven of the eleven species in Africa facing extinction. Hooded, white-backed, Rüppell’s and white-headed vultures are all critically endangered. Lappet-faced, Cape and Egyptian are classified as endangered, cinereous and bearded are classified as near threatened, leaving only the griffon and palm-nut vultures in the category of least concern.

Threats to their survival include loss of habitat and conflict with expanding human populations. This includes diminished food sources, loss of nesting sites, electrocution from collisions with power lines, and poisoning from feeding on the carcasses of farm animals that have been treated with diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory medication that is toxic to vultures. Subsistence farmers also use poison baits to kill predators that attack their livestock. Vultures feeding on the baited animals or the deceased predators also fall victim. In some cultures, they are mistakenly perceived as pests and are persecuted and killed for no other reason.

Vultures have also been targeted by poachers to help them evade detection. The circling behaviour of the birds when they detect deceased animals is being used by rangers to alert them to the activities of poachers.  Carcasses laced with poison kill large numbers of vultures. In 2019 537 vultures were killed in Botswana after feeding on elephant carcasses that had been poisoned by poachers. This included 468 critically endangered white-backed vultures. This was the number of deceased birds collected at the site, but the estimated loss was probably closer to 1500 birds if young birds that were potentially lost due to the death of parent birds are considered.

Poachers also target the birds for bushmeat and body parts. Traditional healers believe that different body parts of a vulture can cure disease and provide foresight through dreams. Some believe that sleeping with the head of a vulture placed under the pillow will allow you to see into the future making them a desired object for gamblers. Raising awareness of the illegal trade in body parts and bushmeat is one of the aims of the vulture presentation.

The Role of Vulture Restaurants

Tourism is proving to be one of the best ways to educate people on conservation issues. The ‘Vulture Culture Experience’ at the lodge is not just a show to entertain tourists but provides an opportunity for visitors to see the feeding habits of these birds and understand their importance to the African ecosystem. By disposing of the carcasses of diseased animals, vultures are crucial to preventing the spread of diseases such as anthrax, cholera, and rabies. They are immune to these and other diseases and their highly acidic digestive system can digest rotting and diseased flesh with no ill effects. The practice also provides safe supplementary feeding zones for vultures assisting in their survival through feeding is never provided at a rate that results in dependence.

White-backed vultures, hooded vultures and marabou storks feeding at the vulture restaurantCritically endangered white-backed and hooded vultures are regular visitors to the restaurant at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge and other visitors include yellow-billed kites, marabou storks and tawny eagles. The vulture feed is a joint venture between the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust and the Lodge. Together they also monitor vulture numbers, nest sites and participate in the fitting of satellite tracking devices to the birds so that their spatial movements can be tracked. Occasionally tagged vultures visit the restaurant providing valuable information that is passed on to Vulpro (Vulture Protection in South Africa).

Through the vulture feeding experience at the lodge, visitors are encouraged to spread awareness of the vulture crisis in Africa, lobby for the banning of the toxic pesticides Furadan and aldicarb and actively encourage the use of ‘green’ medications in livestock. Of course, conservation organizations also require financial support so a donation to these conservation projects is always greatly appreciated. A visit to the ‘Vulture Culture Experience’ is a great experience and it’s free and so a donation is little to ask.  Without vultures, the spread of disease to other animals, and potentially humans, could result in the loss of many other species like lions, elephants and painted dogs so supporting the projects that aim to preserve these guardians of the ecosystem makes perfect sense.

Vulture restaurant presenter Moses and his family

Donate to Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust

Donate to Vulpro (Vulture Protection in South Africa)

Visit Victoria Falls Safari Lodge

Further Reading from this Author

African Vulture Conservation: Guardians of the Ecosystem

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