Safaris & stories
Africa Geographic
Wildlife . People . Travel
Shenton Safaris

Written by: Robbie Mann and Daniel Banks

Often you will see a large bird soaring in the sky, using thermals to gain height. More than often this bird turns out to be a vulture.

Often called ugly, disgusting, and unhygienic, vultures play a crucial role in the environment as nature’s best scavengers. They will find dead animals in the environment and pick the bones clean which in turn helps regulate potential carcass-borne diseases that are exposed to other fauna.

cape vulture, Bushwise
Cape vulture

They are fully adapted for a life on the wing searching out food. A huge wingspan allows them to cover great distances whilst soaring. Keen eyesight helps them look out for dead or decaying animals on the ground. A naked, featherless neck keeps them from getting rotten meat stuck on their heads, and a sharp pointed beak is helpful for tearing rotten flesh.

Hooded vulture, Bushwise
Hooded vulture

In 2017 it was announced that the bird of the year would be the lappet-faced vulture (Trogos tracheliotos). This bird is the largest of the vulture species found in South Africa.

Lappet-faced vulture, Bushwise
Lappet-faced vulture

The reason the bird has been given this tag is because of the many threats that face it as a species. Poisoning, collisions with power lines and even drowning on some farms has resulted in this birds decline.

This huge bird has a wingspan of up to 2.9 metres. They have exceptionally strong bills used to tear open carcasses in the larger mammal species.  Once this huge bird has completed this task it allows the smaller birds to come in a feed.

They play such an important role in making sure that diseases do not spread. They help cycle nutrients back into the ecosystem and prevent the spread of diseases such as rabies.

Lappet-faced vulture, Bushwise
Lappet-faced vulture ©K, Arbon, 2016

The main species of vulture found in the Lowveld region of South Africa, is the white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus). It’s certainly not the prettiest bird in, but without it the bush would be a lot smellier and dirtier a place.

White-backed vulture, Bushwise
White-backed vulture ©Adam Riley

The white-backed vulture is a native to most of Africa, yet the IUCN lists it as critically endangered. Habitat loss and a decline in large ungulates has not helped the vulture species as a whole. They are also persecuted and poisoned out of fear and lack of knowledge. White-backs need large trees such as Knobthorns to build nests and raise young, and these types of trees are just not common anymore and therefore breeding sites are becoming hard to find.

However it is not all bad news as steps are being taken to try and save these birds. Initiatives such as Project Vulture and VulPro are tracking the birds, finding the nesting sites and rescuing sick and injured birds – rehabilitating and returning them to the wild when fully recovered.

The work they do is crucial for this bird’s survival and if we can work together, eventually this species could recover from the brink.

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