Nature's clean-up crew

2008-10-09 00:00

Vultures are not ugly, dangerous, dirty or smelly and they don’t have “bad manners”.

These are some of the totally wrong perceptions that people have about these birds, which in actual fact play a crucial role in cleaning up the environment, and whose numbers are dangerously on the decline due to a number of factors.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust said in a statement issued earlier this month to mark vulture awareness that seven of the country’s nine vulture species are currently under threat of extinction.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and concerned conservationists held a workshop at Midmar Dam recently to examine ways of raising awareness of the vultures’ plight and to protect them by educating the public, farmers and traditional healers.

Key threats to vulture populations in the province, it is said, include the inappropriate use of poisons and other agrochemicals and the collection of vultures for traditional use.

Lack of awareness and the negative image of vultures are also common themes and are seen as contributing factors. Conservationists say there is a clear and urgent need to improve the image of vultures and overcome superstitions, misperceptions and ignorance.

According to a fact sheet presented at the workshop, vultures are not actually ugly. Their appearance is adapted to their specialist role and their bare necks are made for “clean” feeding.

They also do not kill livestock, are not aggressive or dangerous, and they bathe after every meal — unlike most people. Their smell comes from the meat they eat and not the vulture whose own scent is not offensive, say the experts.

Vultures have amazing eyesight and use it to find food.

Another myth is that they are “gluttons” and have “bad manners” when eating but conservationists explain that in reality, due to the fact that meals are unpredictable as carcasses are not always available, the birds are usually very hungry, only eat every few days and have to feed quickly to avoid predators.

There is also no evidence that vultures carry disease, and when circling the skies they are usually not “waiting for death” but simply finding thermals.

The South African Press Association (Sapa) recently quoted Endangered Wildlife Trust as having identified the main threats to vultures as “poisoning, persecution, electrocution, collision with powerlines, drowning in farm reservoirs, food shortages and loss of suitable habitat”.

Research had also shown that vultures are one of the species most threatened by the trade in traditional medicine and that there is strong evidence to suggest that traditional use is partly responsible for the rapid decline of vulture populations in the sub-continent.

The trust was quoted as having said that if the current rate of medicinal use of vulture body parts continues some vulture species will be extinct in South Africa by 2020.

Poachers typically use poison to kill the birds and sell them to traditional medicine markets.

Local conservationists believe the “traditional use” awareness campaign to protect vultures should aim to bring home the message that the extinction of most vulture species in the province is “imminent”; that vultures play an important role in disease control and cleaning up carcasses; that the loss of vultures would represent a loss of a customary resource and part of the Zulu culture; and that users of resources are the custodians of these resources.

They also point out that poisoned birds entering the market pose a risk to human health.

The value of vultures as a potential economic and tourism asset has in most cases yet to be realised.

ingrido@witness.co.za

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