Every corporate mogul may consider the top of the food chain to be a safe perch. In Nature this is not always the case. Vultures serve a vital role as one of the species at the top of the food chain and their presence is a barometric reflection that the system is healthy.
Dr Rob Little of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology says: “Although vultures are often and correctly associated with death because of their scavenging nature, their very presence can be regarded as an indication that all is well. In addition to cleansing the landscape of carcasses, they may well help decrease the spread of diseases such as anthrax and rabies. We are doing the right thing to safeguard these magnificent cleaners of our landscapes.”
Kerri Wolter is a name synonymous with vulture conservation in the region. An education function is central to Kerri's programme, taking the form of talks and presentations to schools, wildlife and bird clubs, land developers and the general public.
Kerri says: "Our aim is to bring a wide recognition to the importance and value of these birds within the overall biosphere."
Of the nine vulture species resident in southern Africa, seven are listed by the IUCN red list (2007) as "endangered". Most endangered among the endemic species is the Cape vulture (G. coprotheres), the largest vulture in Africa.
Cape Vulture nestlings have a mere 17% chance of surviving their first year and only 10% of the hatchlings will reach three years of age. Vultures reach sexual maturity at the age of seven and Cape vultures are believed to be loyal to a single partner.
A pair will build their nest together and line it with dry grass which they carry to the cliff in their beaks and then stomp into shape. The female lays only one egg and the chick is fed by ‘mouth-to- mouth regurgitation’.
The vulture pair will live in a large colony. During the day the colony is an extensive network on the wing, looking out for food and other scavengers.
Vultures locate their meal kilometres away using their eyesight alone. Their eyesight is reportedly eight times better than human eyesight. This remarkable vision has led to the belief that vultures are clairvoyant. The persistence of this belief creates a demand for vulture parts on the muti-market.
Once a meal is located, vultures feast on a "first come, first serve" basis and competition is fierce. Their bodies are designed for this task, their bald heads and long necks allowing them to reach right into the carcass with little chance that scraps will stick to them.
After a feeding frenzy, vultures preen and bathe. The myth that they are dirty creatures is contradicted by the hours spent grooming and basking their wings in the sun. They "bake" away bacteria, spreading their wings open in the sunshine.
These hard-working cleaners are endangered by more than their own monogamy, late maturation and the high mortality of their young.
Loss of habitat to development and agriculture affects vultures directly and indirectly. The diminishing of wild herds means there is less food and the absence of large bone-crushing predators means the vultures consume fewer bone fragments than their calcium needs require. Better farming means fewer livestock deaths. And where farmers over-graze, there tends to be bush encroachment which restricts the vultures' ability to spot food.
There are two main threats to vulture populations - poisoning and electrocution. Besides the threat of being poisoned by exposure to routine livestock medicines, farmers sometimes use baited carcasses to target other species, such as jackals, and have inadvertently killed many vultures.
The Magaliesberg region is crisscrossed with power lines. When a vulture sits on these high structures and stretches a wing, the risk of electrocution is high. Injuries are often permanent and sometimes fatal. "Some are rescued by me, and others become jackal food, or die from starvation or dehydration," says Kerri.
Photographs courtesy of www.rhinolionconservation.co.za
See more on www.vultureconservation.co.za